Rick Santorum edged Newt Gingrich in closely contested primaries in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday, March 13. In Alabama, the results were 35 percent for Santorum, 29 percent for Gingrich, 29 percent for Willard “Mitt” Romney, and 5 percent for Ron Paul. In Mississippi, the results were 33 percent for Santorum, 31 percent for Gingrich, 30 percent for Romney, and 4 percent for Ron Paul.
Newt Gingrich was thought to be strong in the South because he represented Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives for many years. I had thought that Newt would have the inside track in the Southern states because of this. However, I overlooked a couple of factors. First, although Gingrich represented a congressional district in the Atlanta suburbs for a long time, he was not born in Georgia but in Pennsylvania and therefore was evidently not considered a true son of the South by many of the primary voters. Second, on the day before the primary Gingrich had a great number of robo-calls go out with a tape recording of Chuck Norris urging voters to vote for Gingrich. Although I would think Chuck Norris is extremely popular in the South (particularly among moviegoers), Southerners have a strong independent streak and resent being told how to vote. I think the Norris robo-calls may have backfired on Gingrich.
Many of the pundits thought that Romney’s money would make the difference and allow Romney to win at least one and perhaps both of these Southern states. The Romney campaign used the same game plan that had worked in Iowa, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio. They had their “super pac” buy media time and use negative ads to slime his nearest opponent in the final week before the vote. Accordingly, in Mississippi Romney and Romney’s “super pac” outspent Santorum and Gingrich and their “super pacs” combined. Romney also had the support of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and Barbour’s machine. In Alabama, Romney and his “super pac” spent double the combined total of what Santorum and Gingrich and their “super pacs” spent. Romney finished third in both states.
From the standpoint of the Romney campaign, these were disappointing results.
However, it is easy to see the reasons for Romney’s third place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi. First, his tactic of using his “super pac” to make media buys and put out advertising to drive up his opponent’s negatives in the week before the election is something the voters have seen him do so many times that it is beginning to lose its effectiveness. Second, his efforts to pander to the voters in Alabama and Mississippi were so awkward they were painful to watch (“Good morning, y’all. I got the day started right with a biscuit and ‘cheesy’ grits”), and added to his problem of seeming inauthentic. Third, on those few occasions when he relaxed and was himself he produced gaffes that made him seem like Thurston Howell III (This has been a continuing problem for him since day one). No matter how many times Romney wears blue jeans or says “y’all” or talks about eating “‘cheesy’ grits,” he was never going to convince Southerners he was one of them.
For the Santorum campaign, the wins in Alabama and Mississippi are extremely valuable and must be capitalized on as a means to build momentum. Although it would be beneficial to Santorum’s campaign if Newt Gingrich would drop out and leave Santorum as the main “non-Romney” option, it is very unlikely that this will happen in the next week or two. Santorum must use his victories to generate momentum for the primary in Illinois. A victory in Illinois would be an exhilarating boost for Santorum’s campaign.
Paul Schwietering is a former Democratic state central committeeman. He lives in Union Township.