Today’s Courier Herald Column:
After another Tuesday filled with Republican contests to find a Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney again amassed more delegates than any of his competitors. As of early Wednesday, NBC placed Romney’s delegate haul for the evening at 42 delegates to Santorum’s 38. The narrative will be that Mitt Romney lost the evening however, as the delegate front runner came in third in both the Alabama and Mississippi primaries.
Romney’s delegate advantage for the night came from healthy victories in Hawaii and American Samoa. While his third place finish in Alabama and Mississippi had him within a hair’s breadth of first place and a similar delegate allotment, it just seems strange that the “front runner” for the Republican nomination is having difficulty winning Southern votes. The South, after all, is where the majority of electoral votes are generated for most Republican candidates in general elections.
Santorum and Gingrich are both claiming that Romney’s problem with Southerners is that he is not conservative enough. Gingrich has for months used the power of branding in his language to label Romney a “Massachusetts Moderate”. Yet with Gingrich and Santorum locked in to virtual ties for Southern voters, neither is in a rush to cede to the other to test the theory that “conservatives” who are not currently voting for Romney would coalesce around the last one of them who remains standing.
The word “conservative” seems to take on different definitions these days depending on who is using it. In Southern primaries, it seems to be used as a proxy for evangelical Republicans. While Romney’s differing stances on pro-life issues over the years is often cited as hesitancy for evangelicals to support him, there’s also the lingering but often unspoken issue that Mitt Romney is a Mormon.
Thankfully, Georgia State Representative Judy Manning did choose to speak of the issue while campaigning for Newt Gingrich in Iowa, saying she was “afraid” of his Mormon faith. I say “thankfully” because, if you’re a Republican, Manning also gave a hint as to why Romney’s faith may not be an issue outside of Republican primary.
Manning ended her off the cuff statement by saying being a Mormon was “better than being a Muslim.” It should be noted that Democratic polling firm PPP polls released news Monday indicating that 52% of Mississippi Republicans and 45% of Alabama Republicans believe President Obama is a Muslim. No polling was done to indicate how many of them thought being a Mormon was better than being a Muslim, so Rep. Manning’s comment will have to be used as a proxy for this group until scientific analysis can be accomplished.
Romney’s Southern problem is also likely one of perception. Southerners are people that do not necessarily like to be talked down to as stereotypes. We are a people that does not enjoy pointing out to well intentioned northerners that just because we talk slow does not mean that we think slow.
Yet Romney spent the week in Alabama and Mississippi publicly trying to learn to say “y’all”, and marveling over his “cheesy grits” he had for breakfast. “Strange things are happening” to him he said.
It was reminiscent of Georgia GOP candidate Guy Millner, a wealthy Atlanta businessman who took shots at both the U.S. Senate and Governor’s mansion. Consultants decided he needed to be able to relate to folks in South Georgia on their level, and needed a different wardrobe than his customary business suits. Thus, he did the natural thing one does when they want to dress like a farmer. He is said to have gone to Neiman Marcus and purchased a lot of their flannel clothes that looked (to him) like they would fit in among the agrarian residents of South Georgia. Let’s just say that folks who have dealt with the by-products of bulls their entire life knew how to evaluate the attempt to be “one of them.”
Romney, likewise, is receiving a similar treatment from Southerners. He would do better to be the guy that “ain’t from around here” but knows how to orchestrate turnarounds, use the capitalist system to create jobs, and get government out of the way of the productive so that the economy can be fixed.
An affinity for grits is not required to balance the budget, reform the tax code, or create a sensible energy policy. To gain the trust of Southerners, it is much more important to be credible. Instead of trying to be “one of us”, Romney needs to spend more time on telling us how we’ll be better off as a country with him as President.