Candidates and Pundits Look Warily At Crazy Crackers

I made the argument yesterday that Alabama and Mississippi are places considered to be pretty strange even by fellow-southerners, mainly because they seem to have lingered in the Old South a lot longer than their neighbors. But having said that, it’s somewhat amusing to watch yankee candidates and pundits alike warily circling these crazy crackers trying to figure them out.

Exhibit One is my esteemed TNR colleague Alec MacGillis, who notes the universally observed unease exhibited by the GOP presidential candidates in AL and MS, and tries out some theories for why their finely honed messages might not be going over as brilliantly as they did elsewhere:

Take Santorum’s pitch for home-schooling, which may not resonate as much in a place like Mississippi. In other states, he casts home-schooling as the prerogative of parents who want to remove their children from the secular factories of the state schools. But in the South, white parents started pulling their children out of the public schools long ago—not for home-schooling but for private and parochial schools, and less because of godless teachers than because of Brown vs Board of Education. Or take Romney’s railing against what he calls Obama’s “crony capitalism”—loans for Solyndra and other favored green-tech companies. As TNR contributor Ed Kilgore pointed out during the Rick Perry boomlet, the South has long been enamored of doling out tax breaks and cash to companies who set up shop there, a form of industrial policy that is considered a-ok because it’s done by local Republicans. In this context, ideology matters less than culture and group identity, which is perhaps why both men have been reduced to making such excruciating cultural panders.

Only problem with the “they bailed out of public schools long ago” argument for the poor resonance of Santorum’s anti-public-education rap is that the numbers don’t quite back it up. As of 2007, the percentage of kids in private as opposed to public schools in Alabama and Mississippi was 11%, just under the national average for states. I’m sure the percentage is higher for white folks, and for white Republicans in particular, but that’s true in most states with a significant nonwhite population. It’s also true that public education reforms like charter schools have not been as popular in the Deep South as in other parts of the country, but nor have private school vouchers.

As for the idea that Romney can’t attack Obama on Solyndra because southerners like corporate subsidies–well, they don’t like just any old corporate subsidies, especially if they are aimed at those hippified green industries. And best as I can tell, any attack on Obama is welcome among Alabama and Mississippi Republicans. It’s certainly kosher in such places to accuse your primary rivals of being insufficiently ferocious towards Obama and other liberals–in many respects, that was the key to Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina–and of being insufficiently rigorous in every detail of conservative ideology. I’ve seen GOP primaries in the Deep South fought out over minor details of anti-abortion ideology, and Lord knows there is an appetite for regressive tax schemes such as Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

I don’t know exactly why candidates like Romney and Santorum are engaging in what Alec calls “excrutiating cultural panders” unless they are just being poorly advised. Ronald Reagan certainly never had any problem connecting with southern conservatives, and he was as unfamiliar with the region as any of these guys.

On another front, another very smart analyst (and friend), Nate Silver, published a post last night discussing the relatively low accuracy of primary polls in southern states, and before long drifted into a bit of cultural mysticism:

Polls can sometimes have problems because of social desirability bias — the tendency to provide an answer that you think might seem most acceptable to the stranger on the other end of the line, rather than what you really think.

This bias is potentially stronger in cultures that have stronger codes of etiquette, and where people are more self-conscious of the front they present to strangers. This is pertinent in some Asian and Asian-American cultures, for instance. Polls of Hawaii, where there are many Japanese-Americans, have a bad track record; one survey there somewhat infamously predicted a win for George W. Bush in 2004, but John Kerry instead took the state by 9 percentage points.

Etiquette also remains more in tact in the South, and especially in the Deep South, than in most other parts of the country. If so, polls there could encounter similar problems.

Nothing in my personal experience in the South would lead me to think the people there feel any particular compunction to be nice to strangers calling on the phone; indeed, for all the legend of southern hospitality, there are large subcultures in the South (including my own, the Appalachian) where suspicion of and thinly veiled hostility towards strangers is very noticeable (“Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top, reckon they never will.”). Nate goes on to cite a far more persuasive theory: cellphone-only households are unusually prevelant in these two states, particularly Mississippi, which means pollsters, and particularly robo-pollsters, may be missing a lot of voters. But the tour through a cultural explanation seems obligatory.

In any event, the tendency to treat southeners as an alien breed is something crackers themselves encourage for all sorts of historical reasons; it’s nice to feel special. And everyone enjoys watching politicians pander to them. Indeed, I’m sure Alabama and Mississippi Republicans are laughing at these men even as they try to decide which one to endorse to take on the intensely hated and feared Barack Obama. We’re long past the days when a conservative yankee politician could get away with going south and indulging in casual explicit racism as a way of bonding with the white folks, and perhaps that is the problem: they haven’t yet found a suitable substitute. And so they talk about “cheesy grits” and pretend to like NASCAR and country music. It’s all a little ridiculous, y’all.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.