Romney’s Next State Challenges: Why the Midwest is a myth

If I were stranded on a desert island and allowed access to only a single source of U.S. political analysis, I’d request Nate Silver’s Five-Thirty-Eight blog at NYTimes.com. Timely and data-driven, it presents the stuff upon which opinions can be built, rather than simply opinion. True, Silver’s predictive engine completely fumbled the 2010 gubernatorial contest in my home state of Maine, but most of the time it’s remarkably accurate, and the commentary intriguing.

As the author of a book on American regionalism, yesterday’s post – “One test left for Romney – The Midwest”– was of particular interest. Looking at the results thus far – and polling data going forward – Silver argues that for Mitt Romney to lose the nomination, “it is likely to be because of the one region that has yet to give him a victory: the Midwest.”

A contiguous block of eight swing states containing 95 electoral votes — Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — determine the winners and losers in most presidential elections…Only when [candidates] are about evenly divided, as in 2000 or 2004, do swing states in other parts of the country — like Nevada or New Hampshire or Florida — tend to make much difference.

Silver goes on to note that Romney has yet to win a “Midwestern” state, and that his challenger, Rick Santorum, beat him in Iowa and is polling well ahead of today’s caucuses in Minnesota, as well as Missouri and Ohio. “Mr. Santorum is, in many ways, a more dangerous opponent for Mr. Romney than Mr. Gingrich at this point,” he writes, with less baggage, an appeal to working class voters, and “a more compassionate side of conservatism when it comes to fiscal policy.” Unlike Newt Gingrich – strong only in the Deep South – Silver thinks Santorum has a possible – albeit remote – path to the nomination.

I’d offer one correction to this analysis: there’s no such thing as the Midwest.

As I argue in American Nations, the middle part of the country is divided between three regional cultures, each rooted in a distinct colonial culture founded on or near the eastern seaboard. Yankeedom, the Greater New England cultural space, encompasses the Western Reserve of Ohio, the northern fifth of Illinois, all of the Upper Great Lakes states, and portions of eastern Iowa and the Dakotas. The Quaker-founded, German-influenced Midlands occupy the next tier southward: a slice of Pennsylvania, central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, parts of northern Missouri, most of Iowa and the eastern halves of Kansas and Nebraska. Scots-Irish Greater Appalachia got its start in south-central Pennsylvania – very close to Mr. Santorum’s hometown – and dominates southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, half of Arkansas and Oklahoma, and northeastern and central Texas. These cultures –
fleshed out in more detail here– have never had much in common politically, socially, or ethnographically, a fact of considerable importance in interpreting “Midwestern” politics.

As I’ve previously noted in this space, Romney is a Yankee-born, Yankee-raised former Yankee governor who belongs to a faith with Yankee roots. He has the upper hand over his rivals across Yankeedom: he won New Hampshire and will almost certainly win Michigan, the other New England states, and if he loses in Minnesota tonight, it will be as much because of Ron Paul as Gingrich or Santorum. He should also be strong in Illinois (because Chicagoland and the north have such a large share of the electorate), but vulnerable in Ohio and Pennsylvania (where Yankees do not constitute a plurality) and, especially, Missouri (where they don’t exist at all.) He’d be in trouble in Indiana too, had Santorum not failed to get on the ballot there.

As Alec MacGillis noted recently at The New Republic, Santorum’s personal history and political powerbase have both straddled the great fracture line of Keystone State politics: that between Appalachia and the Midlands. His Catholic working class background plays well with conservative Midlanders, helped him achieve victory in Iowa, and accounts for his polling strength in (I suspect, Midlander and Appalachian) Ohio and Missouri (which is also split between these two cultures.) Gingrich, by contrast, plays poorly outside the Deep South, and even failed to win the counties of central Florida this year. Paul – a Midland-born, Appalachian-based iconoclast — does not have clear appeal in regional cultural terms, a fact that will always hamper his myriad candidacies.

In short, Romney has two tests left in the primary: the Midlands and Greater Appalachia. And he’ll need to appeal to voters in both if he’s to win the general election against President Obama.

Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.