KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—Shortly after 9:30 on Saturday, Lloyd Daugherty sat down, rested his cane on his chair, and retold his Ronald Reagan story. The Tennessee Conservative Union, which Daugherty has run since the 1980s, had wrapped up its annual banquet, and its members were slowly finding their way to the hospitality suite, so Daugherty had some down time.
“President Reagan was speaking in Washington, and he invited me backstage,” said Daugherty. “He liked to talk to people after the events, take the pulse. I’d been running his campaign in Tennessee. He asked me, ‘How do people think I’m doing?’ I told him. ‘Down where I come from, they think you’re the best president since Jefferson Davis.’ He said, ‘Jefferson Davis? That’s a great compliment.’ ”
When he delivered Reagan’s lines, he waved his arms; he was wearing presidential seal cufflinks, given to him by the 40th president.
“A couple of months later, he’s in Tennessee,” recalls Daugherty “He remembers my comment. And he asks, ‘Am I still the best president since Jefferson Davis?’ I say, ‘Yes, sir, I think you are.’ And he says: ‘Well, I ain’t lost a war yet!’ ”
It was a nostalgic night. When representatives of the four GOP presidential campaigns showed up to speak, two of them quoted Reagan at length. The Conservative of the Year award, handed out during dinner, was a plaque imprinted with the faces of three smiling, departed Republicans: Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Jesse Helms. Mitt Romney will never be among them.
“If he wins,” said Daugherty, “the South is still going to vote, I think, for the Republican candidate. What it does, I think, is hurt the Republican Party down-ticket. It’s probably not going to cause Obama to pick up any Southern states, but it is going to hold down enthusiasm and fundraising in the South.”
Two days later, Daugherty introduced Gingrich at a rally in Chattanooga, and reminded his crowd that Ronald Reagan beat George H.W. Bush in Tennessee “with all the money against him, with every congressman but one against him.” The next day, Super Tuesday, Gingrich would win only 24 percent of the vote in Tennessee and come in third place. Mitt Romney, the first Republican front-runner since 1996 with no real ties to the South, would lap the field for delegates.
You have to drive the DeLorean far, far back in time to find another Republican primary where the South was this irrelevant. From 1980 to 2008, in every competitive race, the eventual GOP nominee had minted his crown in South Carolina. In 2008, John McCain got at least 30 percent of the vote in every southern Super Tuesday state except Mike Huckabee’s Arkansas. He lost by only 2 percent in Georgia, 3 percent in Tennessee, and 4 percent in Alabama.
Back to 2012. Mitt Romney has lost every southern state thus far by at least 9 percent. Put together, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina have 300 counties. Romney has won nine of them, all urban or wealthy suburban areas. As CNN’s Peter Hamby first noticed, Romney actually came in third place in most Appalachian counties. Romney won Florida, but he won only three counties in the panhandle, the part most like the rest of the South.
Can Romney actually win the nomination if he bombs out in the South? He may need to. The next primaries, on Tuesday, are for Alabama’s 50 delegates and Mississippi’s 40 delegates. There hasn’t been much polling in those states, but they slant heavily toward Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Both candidates are campaigning in the Deep South today and tomorrow. Mitt Romney hasn’t scheduled any Alabama or Mississippi stops. The only mention of either state from his campaign today came in an afternoon email, announcing the endorsement of a former Alabama governor.
Romney’s opponents take pride in his inability to win the South. “He’ll either learn to win here,” said Newt Gingrich after a Tennessee rally, “or he won’t be the nominee.” At Gingrich’s Super Tuesday Party, his former spokesman-turned-super PAC honcho Rick Tyler predicted wins in the Deep South and in Texas, when that state’s up in May.
“Mitt Romney’s false ads don’t work in the South,” he said. “The whole South turned Republican under Speaker Gingrich. They didn’t forget that.”