The Republican candidates are finishing up their last minute pitches to voters who usually don't get that much attention -- those in Alabama and Mississippi. The Deep South primaries on March 13 are supposed to offer some kind of test for Romney, because in the primary contests so far, he hasn't been able to win two groups that are a really important part of the Republican base: evangelicals and very conservative voters. Those voters are a much bigger part of the electorate in Alabama and Mississippi. But in the general election, Romney's problem won't be winning over Alabama conservatives, it will be winning independents in swing states. Those groups don't look a lot alike, which is one reason why Deep South voters are usually ignored.
In Alabama, for example, Public Policy Polling finds that only 14 percent of likely Republican voters think Obama's a Christian; 45 percent think he's Muslim. In August 2010, only 18 percent of independents nationwide thought Obama was a Muslim, Pew Research Center found -- and that was just a couple months before dissatisfaction with Obama led to Democrats' huge losses in the midterm elections. A couple more data points showing how the South really is different: PPP finds that in Alabama, 21 percent think interracial marriage should be illegal, 29 percent think so in Mississippi. It's not nice to say that voters in the Deep South are different than those in the rest of the country. No one likes to be called racist. But pretending the region's past isn't important anymore leads to curious conclusions. The Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold and Krissah Thompson talked to voters in Mississippi:
"Southern people are conservative by need. You know, if you lived in the South 40 years ago, you’d know what I’m talking about," said Donald Crocker, who has cut hair in tiny Leakesville since 1966. He meant that Southerners had learned to live poor, relying on their churches and their neighbors and not expecting government help.
Hmm... it seems like there was something else that made the South conservative 40 years ago. Oh yes! The Post continues:
Romney’s efforts to connect focused on food. “I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits,” he said in Jackson, Miss. “I’ll tell ya — delicious.” In other states, the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign had stretched out giant versions of the state flag as part of his backdrop. But Mississippi’s flag — which incorporates the Confederate flag — was set behind a tractor, limp and almost invisible.
Here's how the candidates are appealing to voters down South:
Why Southern states matter: Romney, as mentioned, must show he can appeal to conservatives and evangelicals, the conventional wisdom says.
Pitch: "We're gonna win tomorrow" in Alabama Romney said Monday, Politico reports. He was meeting with voters in Mobile with comedian Jeff Foxworthy, whose downscale jokes seem an odd match for Romney. (You might not be a redneck if you hand out with more Nascar team owners than fans?)
Southern error: Uncomfortable discussion of his new love of grits. Plus, on Monday he bragged about "getting hugs from the Southern girls," Politico reports, those aged "from 12, to well, a lot more than 12."
Why Southern states matter: Santorum's campaign is arguing that while he needs to win 60 percent of the remaining delegates to be nominated, Romney still has to win half, Politico's Maggie Haberman reports. Santorum is trying to at least deny him that by competing till June.
Pitch: "Red Alabama... Conservative Alabama. The heart of conservatism," Santorum told a crowd in Huntsville, The New York Times reports.
Southern error: Santorum told the crowd about how Bill Clinton adviser James Carville had described Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but Alabama in between." Santorum meant to compliment Alabama, but the crowd just laughed softly, not quite getting it, the Post reports.
Why Southern states matter: It's Newt's last last stand. His campaign said he has to win Alabama and Mississippi last week, before Gingrich clarified that he's going all the way to the Republican convention in Tampa.
Pitch: Turn himself into a true regional candidate, Gingrich's campaign floated the idea of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as his vice-president.
Southern error: Rambling on about gun racks, not knowing what he's talking about. Gingrich mocked the Obama administration's push for the Chevy Volt, saying you can't strap a gun rack to it. Well, it turns out you can, the Post reports. But more important: most gun-owners don't put gun racks on sedans, even the least fuel-efficient ones. Tip: guys, it's okay if you don't hunt -- just don't pretend you know about guns if you don't.
Ron Paul is campaigning in the Hawaii caucuses.