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.”
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.
“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.