Can Romney Win the South? and Other Questions As the Republican Primary Race Prepares to Go Southern

In heaping scorn on Mitt Romney’s presidential prospects, George F. Will points to Romney’s poor record at winning votes. He points out that Romney has won 5 out of 22 elections in which he has run, making a batting average of .227.

Will could have gone further. He doesn’t mention that Romney has never won a primary in the South where the Republican party is at its strongest, and where the country as a whole is moving. Thanks to shifting demographics, the South recently picked up 7 new electoral delegates. That is good news for Republican candidates come the general election, but first they must survive the South’s primary contests.

As it appears that there will be no definitive winner in either Iowa or New Hampshire, it is in the South where the contest will be decided. Historically, South Carolina has been the tie-breaker. In 1980, South Carolina picked Reagan over George H.W. Bush. In 2008, it picked McCain over Huckabee.

Neither McCain nor Huckabee are running this time around, which gives Mitt Romney an opening. But Romney didn’t even bother campaigning there in 2008, preferring the Nevada caucuses instead, so it remains to be seen how successful he will be in the “first in the South” primary.

South Carolina's Gov. Nikki Haley supports Mitt Romney (Photo: wtlx.com)

But now Romney is giving it a try. To be viable in South Carolina, Romney needs endorsements to knock Newt Gingrich down from the lead he enjoys in the polls. In comes Tea Party-backed Governor Nikki Haley to the rescue, who is stumping for Romney all over the Palmetto state. It remains to be seen how influential her endorsement really is. Haley’s support among South Carolinians has imploded since she was elected. Only 35% of voters approve of the job she is doing, according to a recent poll, and Romney has received under thirty percent of Republican support in every poll taken in South Carolina.

Haley’s fellow South Carolina Republicans haven’t endorsed. Senator Jim DeMint, who endorsed Romney in 2008, has remained deliberately neutral in 2012. He quickly dispelled rumors that he was endorsing Romney when they surfaced. Other South Carolina pols–notably the Republican house delegation–have been silent on who they would endorse.

Of course South Carolina can’t break a tie if we don’t know who wins Iowa or New Hampshire, and that outcome remains very much in doubt.

If Michele Bachmann or, less likely, Rick Santorum (or both) drop out after the Iowa caucuses, look to Rick Perry–the only evangelical-friendly candidate with any money– to make a play for their supporters. Evangelicals are his people and he’ll look to turn them out. Perry recently noted a “transformation” in his pro-life views. He now favors ending abortion in the cases of rape and incest. That might do him harm in a general election, but to pro-lifers it is music to their ears, albeit played perhaps at little too conveniently a time.

Look to the other Southern governors coming to Rick Perry’s aid. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, a rising star of the party, endorsed Perry and has been doing robo-calls for him in South Carolina.

Of course South Carolina may not matter all the much this time around, thanks to the hefty prize of Florida. Florida’s delegate count has been halved after the RNC punished it for moving its primary up on the calendar. There are now only 50 delegates up for grabs. South Carolina, which was also punished for moving its date up, has only 25. Will Florida overshadow South Carolina and rob it of its traditional importance?

Perhaps, but only if you consider Florida a southern state. The way to think of Florida is that it is divided ideologically and sociologically, north and south. The south is the sixth borough of New York, which is why Rudy Giuliani effectively ran for its mayorship. The north is the more conservative, more evangelical part of the state.

That presents a problem for Mitt Romney. Evangelicals and conservatives have had a hard time warming to the former moderate Massachusetts Republican governor, but Romney is helped in one significant way: Florida’s winner-take-all primary. If the other candidates split the evangelical or the conservative vote, Romney could walk away with all 50 of the states delegates and his competitors would get nothing. Romney knows that all too well having been narrowly defeated by John McCain in Florida in 2008–and McCain took all the delegates despite failing to win a majority.

The effect of a winner-take-all system is to lock up the nomination quickly, as a piece in NPR points out yesterday.

Despite the risks of an Obama-Clinton-style political trench war, it may be better for to have the primary race last longer, in order to allow candidates to receive as much earned media attention as possible. However, ours is a federal republic in which the state parties set the rules of their nominating process. That is as it should be. You want an active and energetic local party setting its own rules.

NPR does point out that that feature of our system complicates the process. If the delegate count gets close at the convention in Tampa, the candidates will have an incentive to reevaluate Florida’s winner-take-all system, and change the rules once more. That will most definitely send the primary into the courts–but, of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that a Florida election was decided there.

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