Here’s a simple fact that has been lost amid Mitt Romney’s newfound love of grits, Newt Gingrich’s desire for gun racks on Chevy Volts and Rick Santorum’s insistence that the South is a home game for him: None of the top three Republican presidential contenders are “of” the South in any meaningful way.
“The south is not just a place, it is, as they proudly tell you, a state of mind,” said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos. “The North is defined by reason, the South embraces romance and the heart. The North is relativist, the South lives by absolutes. When the South is right, it is absolutely right. When wrong, it is absolutely, tragically wrong.”
Ed Rogers, a Republican consultant and Alabama native, put it more bluntly. “None of them hit the sweet spot,” he said of the GOP field. “None of the candidates are story tellers, none take football seriously, none are Protestant and nobody really has a favorite country music singer.”
What Castellanos and Rogers are both getting at is this: Not only do the top three candidates lack true geographic ties (in two of the three cases) to the region but, more importantly, they are culturally and attitudinally in a very different place than most Southerners.
Romney was born in Michigan and his experience in government is in Massachusetts, which is about as far from the South culturally — The Fix knows of what he speaks as a fellow Northeasterner — as humanly possible. Despite Romney’s attempts to go southern — “y’all”! — he spoke the truth last week when he acknowledged that the Mississippi and Alabama primaries today are “a bit of an away game” for him.
Geographically, Santorum is every bit as far from the South as Romney — in spite of the famous line about Pennsylvania that is it “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between”. Culturally, Santorum has more of a case to be made as his social conservatism is appealing to many in the state. “Santorum philosphically aligns with the south on social issues,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committeeman from Mississippi. At the same time, however, Santorum is a Northeastern Catholic trying to win over a bunch of Southern Baptists. It’s not exactly a hand-in-glove fit.
And that brings us to Gingrich. Yes, he represented the Atlanta suburbs for the better part for two decades, making him the most Southern candidate of the top tier.
But, keep these three things in mind: 1. Gingrich was an Army brat who was born in Pennsylvania and didn’t settle in Georgia until high school. 2. Gingrich is culturally conservative but doesn’t tend to swim in the same waters as Santorum. 3. Atlanta is among the least southern of places in the South. It’s sort of like claiming southern heritage if you are from Miami.(Ok, it’s not that bad — but you get the idea.)
The fact that none of the three candidates are a genuinely good match for the average Southern voter is why you have seen some awkward attempts to bridge the cultural gap over the past week. (My colleagues David Fahrenthold and Krissah Williams wrote a terrific piece on this awkwardness earlier this week.)
Of course, someone needs to win tonight in Alabama and Mississippi. (Polling suggests both races are very close.)
Gingrich seems the most obvious choice due to his quasi-Southern roots — the best of the bunch — as well as his embrace of a fiery rhetorical style that should play well in the more rural areas of Alabama and Mississippi. (If Gingrich wins, his economic populist pitch of $2.50 gas will have played a major role too.)
Santorum will likely be the default choice of many social conservatives in both states. (Keep an eye on northeastern Mississippi — home of social conservatives in the state — to see how Santorum is faring among what should be his base.)
And then there is Romney who, oddly, seems to be the momentum candidate going into the votes today. Castellanos explains Romney’s support by noting that the South has changed over the past few decades — splitting between the so-called “New” and “Old” Souths. Of the former, Castellanos said: “What has undone it is the suburbs, imported from the north. Once you have a McDonalds and a Starbucks, just like New Jersey, how can you be the South?”
Added Castellanos: “Romney is New South and Santorum and Newt are splitting Old South.That may be why Mitt, relatively speaking, is doing better than expected.”
(Watch the suburban counties north and east of Jackson — particularly Madison County — to see how strong Romney will run in the ‘burbs.)
No matter which of the three candidates wins tonight, he will confidently declare that the primaries have shown that he is the South’s candidate. But, saying it doesn’t make it be true.