At rallies in Mississippi and Alabama, which hold primaries Tuesday, the candidates awkwardly fished for something they might have in common with Southern audiences. Newt Gingrich talked about gun racks but got his facts wrong. Mitt Romney announced, “I like grits.” Rick Santorum tried to describe a connection to Alabama but admitted he was not a frequent visitor.
In small towns, many voters said they had noticed a cultural disconnect between themselves and the three East Coast-based candidates vying to lead their party. The candidates talked about conservative values, of course.
But, to people in pine-woods towns, it didn’t seem like they were living them out in the same way.
“Southern people are conservative by need. You know, if you lived in the South 40 years ago, you’d know what I’m talking about,” said Donald Crocker, who has cut hair in tiny Leakesville since 1966. He meant that Southerners had learned to live poor, relying on their churches and their neighbors and not expecting government help. Even when their forebears received government handouts — cheese and powdered milk — they scrimped and saved and used it all. He still tries to live that way, charging just $9 per haircut and $10 for a flattop.
He felt strongly that President Obama would destroy this way of life, displaying a bumper sticker that said: “If you voted for Obama in ’08 to prove you’re not a racist, vote for someone else in ’12 to prove you’re not an idiot!” But he suspected none of the GOP candidates knew what he was talking about.
“I will vote for them” against Obama, Crocker said. “But they don’t understand it like I do.”
This unease has helped make the two states’ primaries hard to predict — in Alabama, local polls have shown all three candidates as front-runners. In the long run, it could also sap enthusiasm across the GOP’s Southern base, which will be crucial in swing states like Virginia at the edges of the old Confederacy.
This is a rare moment in Republican politics. Usually, the role of Mississippi and Alabama is to follow, not to choose. The states have voted for every GOP nominee since Ronald Reagan. But their primaries have usually come too late to matter, and the nominee has already been picked.
The two are left out in other ways: They haven’t produced a president since the Confederate president, Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis. They have never produced a GOP nominee. This time around, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (R) thought about a presidential bid, was criticized for his recollections of Mississippi under segregation and eventually gave up.
“If you look at the South, we produce great football coaches. We produce great generals. Great soldiers. And we produce our share of colorful politicians,” said Gary Palmer, president of the conservative Alabama Policy Institute. But few presidents. “We haven’t had one since Jimmy Carter [of Georgia]. And that may explain it.”