Why the South Doesn’t Matter in 2012

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 7 2012 7:15 PM

Down and Out in the Deep South

Southern states used to be must-wins if you wanted to be the Republican nominee. Not anymore.

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Watching Romney compete for Southern votes is not like watching Gingrich or Santorum. I attended one of the only two Southern stops Romney made before Super Tuesday, a Sunday rally at a high school outside of Knoxville. His crowds didn’t look like Gingrich’s. Most of Romney’s voters were wearing blazers or nice dresses. (The ones I talked to weren’t headed to evening service, either.)

Gingrich’s Tennessee voters weren’t the type to don button down shirts just to see a politician speak. When I’d ask them why they liked Gingrich, I heard that he understood the South—the culture, the conservatism, the history. “We know what it’s like to be attacked in an illegal war,” said Hank Barkalow, a retired military pilot. He was referring to the Civil War.

You won’t hear that at a Romney rally. His voters chatted amiably about how nice the candidate’s family was, and how much business sense he had. They sang along to the state’s theme song, “Rocky Top,” then helped Romney along as he tried to remember another song.

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“This place always has a special meaning in my heart,” he said at an event in Knox County on Sunday, “because when I grew up, I was thinking about Davy Crockett, all right? I grew up watching—oh, what was it called—oh, Disneyland! And how did it go? Davy, Davy Crockett. Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee. Greenest state in the land of the free. Raised in the woods so he knew every tree. Killed himself a bear, when he was only three. Davy, Davy Crockett!” Romney’s boosters cheered for his memory and Disney-fueled state pride. “Obviously, the leaves aren’t on the trees, but there’s some green out there. This is the greenest state in the land of the free, with very good people, and very good values!”

Romney was proving his connection to the South with a songbook. In the end, it didn’t take—he would lose Knox County to Rick Santorum. Even before the votes came in, though, it was clear that the best he could hope for was a non-humiliating, delegate-winning loss. His endorsers, including Tennessee’s governor and three Republican members of the congressional delegation, didn’t quite understand it.

“There’s this perception that he’s not conservative, but you couldn’t have a man that’s more family-oriented than this man!” said Rep. Phil Roe, standing over to the side after Romney’s speech. Without any prodding, he started to talk about Romney’s Mormonism. “They don’t drink, smoke—I don’t know what they do for fun.”

A voter walked over to Roe to ask him something.

“Do Mormons drink any caffeine?”

“No, I don’t think they can drink caffeine,” said Roe. “These folks serve for two years. When they get out of college they give two years to their church. So I think it’s more of a perception. When you look into his heart and soul, he’s a conservative.”

This is part of why Romney’s losing in the South. Too many Southerners don’t think he’s conservative. Some of them—and some will admit it—cannot get past his Mormonism.

“Let’s face it, we’re stubborn,” explained Lloyd Daugherty. “We’re independent. We don’t like to be told what to do, especially from other parts of the country.”

In 2012, they might not have a choice.