Super Tuesday fallout: Will the South ever vote for Mitt Romney?
On paper, Mitt Romney can clinch the nomination without winning many die-hard red states. But a surge by Rick Santorum in the South could spell big trouble for the frontrunner.
Mitt Romney's failure to win a bona fide red, evangelical state on Super Tuesday highlights his liabilities among white evangelical conservatives, a population that may hold the key to his nomination.Skip to next paragraph
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Yes, Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, eked out an important symbolic victory in the Ohio bellwether and won in Alaska, Massachusetts, and Vermont. And he did win Virginia, a Southern state, but the victory was a hollow one, since neither Rick Santorum nor Newt Gingrich were on the ballot.
Indeed, wherever evangelical voters are in a majority – in Tennessee, three of four who went to the polls Tuesday counted themselves as such, compared to half in Ohio – Romney so far has lost. And it was no different on Tuesday.
Super Tuesday turned into a geographical grab bag that highlighted the candidates' challenges: Mr. Santorum won in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, showing he can win in the South, the West and the Midwest, but not New England; Mr. Gingrich won convincingly in his home state, Georgia, but was unimpressive everywhere else; Romney, meanwhile, picked up states in New England, the West, and the Midwest, but none in the South. (While Romney did win Florida on Jan. 31, it's not widely considered a Deep South state, and he got trounced in the Deep South enclaves of the Panhandle.)
To be sure, Romney's efficient delegate vacuum will be tough for Santorum and Mr. Gingrich to squelch, but Romney's road to the nomination still runs through Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, states that could help Santorum build a large enough coalition to scuttle Romney's bid to reach 1,140 delegates.
“I think [the dynamics in the South] are going to matter,” says Richard Fording, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. “In a country that's as evenly divided as we are now, you can't afford to have a lack of enthusiasm in your own base, and that's what [Romney] is looking at.”
Even many voters who put an X next to Romney's name across the country on Tuesday did it with a wince. While he's still widely considered to be the best candidate to try to beat Obama in a general election, polls also show his favorability ratings sliding.
In the South, that discomfort is even greater. Romney's wealth, for one, is a liability among the South's many low-income voters; he's not as strong on social and values issues as other candidates; his stint as governor of one of the most liberal states in the union, Massachusetts, doesn't help, and neither does his faith, Mormonism, which is still considered by many evangelicals to be a cult. More than six in 10 primary voters in Tennessee and Georgia said in exit polling on Tuesday that it's important that a candidate shares their religious beliefs.