Gingrich Knows How To get the South Riled Up

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 12 2012 7:16 PM

The Defender of the Faith

Gingrich knows the South: When things get desperate, talk about the United Nations, Lucifer, and a war on Christians.

Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich

By Marianne Todd/Getty Images.

BRANDON, Miss.—“There’s a show,” says Newt Gingrich, “that uses the word Christian in a deliberately hostile way.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

There’s no chance that anyone in Gingrich’s crowd—several hundred people gathered in the chilly storage area of Brandon’s city hall—will end up watching or DVRing the show in question. GCB, a midseason replacement on ABC the past two weeks, started life as a novel titled Good Christian Bitches. When the network adapted the book, it softened the name to Good Christian Belles, then to the acronym. Not good enough. ABC hadn’t fooled Gingrich, and he wouldn’t let the network fool his base.

“To show you how sick the system is,” says Gingrich, “try to put the word Muslim in, instead of Christian. It is inconceivable that anybody in our elites would tolerate a program that was that defiling of Islam. But it’s fine to defile Christianity? That’s how sick the system is.”

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You want more examples of how sick it is? Gingrich has got ‘em. “We have a president who apologizes to religious fanatics in Afghanistan, while he’s attacking the Catholic Church and every pro-life group in America,” he says. “He says we’re going to respect the sacred objects of every religion? Fine. Put up all the crosses the courts have torn down!”

In my section of the crowd, I hear “Amens” and shouts of “Yes, yes, yes!” Hearing a national politician talk about this stuff is exhilarating for the crowd. Rick Santorum emotes when he talks about a war on Christians. Mitt Romney doesn’t talk about it at all. Gingrich just states it, with the same measured tone he’d bring to a talk about gas prices or (less frequently these days) some panel about education reform.

And it works. Gingrich has appeared on the ballot in 20 states so far, and lost in all but two of them—both in the Deep South. The final pre-election polls in Mississippi and Alabama show Gingrich either winning or coming in second, with a pack of delegates in tow. Dig into the polls and you find Southern voters basically favorable toward Gingrich by a 2-1 margin. The campaign now says it erred in sending the candidate to campaign in Washington’s caucuses, where Gingrich crawled into fourth place, instead of trying to win Oklahoma and Tennessee and clipping Rick Santorum’s wings in the South. Gingrich has collapsed in other states. He’s resilient here.

Gingrich pulls it off with one of the acts he’s honed since the 1970s—the happy culture warrior, offended by liberal bigotry, with no grand agenda of his own. Ask him about birth control and he’ll say it’s a distraction from a better question about why “Barack Obama supported infanticide.” Gingrich doesn’t get trapped in wedge issue cul de sacs. Rick Santorum will buy up acreage in those cul de sacs. Both men try to segue to an argument over first principles; Gingrich typically succeeds.

Mississippi Republicans have an ear for this stuff. Brandon is one of the places where it works. It’s a suburb of Jackson, a classic white-flight town with residents who don’t mind talking about why they flew. “I moved here in 1996 from Jackson,” says Buddy Davis, a retired Army veteran who “isn’t crazy” about his candidate choices, “because the other race was taking over. It wasn’t safe. There was a shooting just about every day.” Mississippi is 37 percent black, and Jackson is 79 percent black; in Brandon, it’s only 17 percent. The black Republicans I meet in Brandon, like Newt supporter Keith Hall, still talk about Jackson as an example of how society stops working when the government’s swollen and people lose their values.

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