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.
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.
A recent Capstone poll showed that only 10 percent of white voters in Alabama think Obama is doing a good or excellent job, a strong indicator that evangelicals are likely to muster enough enthusiasm to vote in the general election should Romney be the nominee. But the long, undecided primary race won't be kind to Romney.
“Evangelical voters and tea party supporters may have to hold their nose, but they will vote for Romney against Obama,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, in Atlanta. “That's not going to be Romney's problem as much as the damage inflicted on him in this primary race, some of it by himself, as he's trying to win over these very conservative Republican primary voters.”
And Romney has more immediate worries, as well. Gingrich has said winning Mississippi and Alabama next week is critical. Should Santorum scuttle those plans and Gingrich drop out, Romney's problems with white evangelicals could exponentially increase. That could mean that Romney's loss in Tennessee, where he was close and had a chance to break through as a truly national candidate, could be critical down the road.
“There's been poll after poll after poll that shows if Rick Santorum were just to have a one-on-one shot with Mitt Romney that the Gingrich supporters go right to Rick Santorum in big numbers," Santorum senior strategist John Brabender told reporters Tuesday. "So conservative and tea party folks are going to have a decision to make: Do we want Mitt Romney to be the nominee or not, or do we want to just keep splitting our vote."
“The worst thing that can happen to Mitt Romney is to have one of those two drop out so that it becomes a one-on-one contest,” agrees Professor Abramowitz.
At the same time, Romney's Southern strategy, such as it is, has reaped some benefits, and may reap more. While he hasn't had much of a grassroots campaign in the South, Romney and his super PAC backers have been advertising and doing robocalls through the region, which has helped him peel off delegates even in states he's lost.
And his hands-off approach on social issues may pay off among Southern moderates in the long run, which, if he's the nominee, could help his efforts in states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, where Obama won, often narrowly, in 2008.
Those are the same states where enthusiasm among African-American voters may have waned since the historic election in 2008, says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, in Athens. (President Obama on Thursday traveled to North Carolina to tour a truck plant and talk about the economy.)
“There are some Southern voters who do think it's more important that the candidate be right on the issues,” he says. “Come November, it may be hard for Romney to get the evangelicals, but I believe it'll be much, much harder for Obama to get the support of African-Americans in the South.”