Southern Discomfort

You can’t go too far wrong by assuming that anything Newt Gingrich says is off in some serious respect. Yet one completely irrational thing he keeps saying appears to have sunk into the collective unconscious of the chattering classes: Mitt Romney must win in the South before he can win the nomination.

My first reaction to that is: why? Are votes at the convention weighted by region? Is the South the principal battleground region in the general election? Does the South exert some sort of emotional demand on the GOP that must be satisfied?

And my second reaction is: didn’t Romney win in Florida and Virginia, former states of the Confederacy? Now it’s true much of Florida feels about as “southern” as New Jersey, and that Gingrich ran even with Romney in the Dixified northern part of the state. It’s also true that Mitt didn’t have to face Santorum or Gingrich in VA. And for that matter, I used to tease my extremely self-conscious Cavalier colleague Will Marshall that Virginia was merely a “border state.”

But votes are votes, and there are difficulties with any definition of “the South” (one is that “the South” is where people used to own people, but that would include states like Delaware, Maryland and Missouri that don’t exactly behave in a “southern” manner politically).

In any event, in my latest TNR column I’ve tried to unpack the whole “Mitt Must Win In Dixie” meme, and concluded it’s largely a crock. Yes, if he continues to struggle in the South and in the Midwest it could be a real problem for him in nailing down the nomination, but that’s just another way of saying you have to keep winning a majority of delegates in primaries and caucuses until you have a majority of all the delegates. Much of Mitt’s weakness in the South isn’t some mysterious cultural thing, but simply reflects the fact that “very conservative” and white evangelical voters don’t much like him, and there are a lot of those folks in the South. According to the exit polls, 73% of the primary voters in Tennessee were evangelicals/born-agains, as were 72% in Oklahoma and 64% in GA. It’s no surprise he lost those states, but if he strugges in any of them in November, he’s clearly going to be losing all over the place. So we should give this meme a rest going forward.

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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.