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Does Romney Have a 'Southern Problem'?

After just barely pulling out a win in Ohio, Mitt Romney has “won Super Tuesday” by most media accounts. But even with his successes (wins in Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Idaho, and a decent shot in Alaska), you’ll likely hear some people echo a recent claim by Newt Gingrich: that Romney can’t be confident of the nomination if he can’t win anywhere in the South.

This concern didn’t suddenly present itself: Mitt’s first real stumble in the race, of course, was in South Carolina, where he got righteously stomped by Newt. While he recovered nicely in Florida, he ran no better than even with Gingrich in those northern and northwestern Florida counties considered the authentically Southern parts of that very diverse state. And Romney continued to show Southern discomfort last night, losing Georgia to Gingrich and Tennessee to Santorum (who also won quasi-Southern Okahoma). Yes, Romney won Virginia, but Gingrich and Santorum weren’t even on the ballot there. Can Mitt win while losing every other Southern primary from here on out? The answer is that yes, he can—though perpetual weakness in any one region does theoretically reduce his margin of error.

Figuring out if he is indeed weak in this region, and how much it matters, gets into the always-difficult issue of how you define the South. If it means the eleven former Confederate States of America, then five states, accounting for 258 out of the national total of 2286 GOP delegates, have already voted. Mitt Romney is estimated to have won at least 115 of them. The six remaining states (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas) account for another 382 delegates. None of these six are winner-take-all states, which means that Mitt Romney is very likely to accumulate delegates even if he loses the statewide vote.

If “the South” is expanded to all former slave states, then you can add Oklahoma to the states that have already voted—which contributes another eight delegates to Romney’s totals. Down the road, that expanded definition would add Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia, and another 182 delegates (of those, only Maryland is winner-take-all). The expanded total of 564 delegates still on the schedule for “the South” certainly makes the region a big prize, but it’s only about the same number of delegates still to be awarded by the decidedly un-Southern California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Puerto Rico, and Utah. And the bulk of winner-take-all states are outside the region: California, D.C., New Jersey, Puerto Rico, Utah, and Wisconsin, along with the Mitt-friendly “Southern” states of Delaware and Maryland. So long as Romney can keep raising money (or, in a pinch, contributing from his own pocket), he can certainly win the nomination while maintaining his current mediocre performance in the South.

But the frequent exclamation that “Romney can’t win without the South” isn’t just about delegate allocations. It’s often meant to imply that a GOP candidate who is weak in this “base” region will struggle to win the general election. So far, though, there are no indications that those Southern voters who are pulling the lever for someone else in the primaries won’t settle for Mitt Romney in a general election. In Georgia, for example, 81 percent of today’s voters said they’d “definitely” vote for the party’s nominee and another 11 percent “probably” would; a big chunk of the probables and the holdouts appear to be Ron Paul supporters, many of them not actually Republicans. Moreover, the Southern states where Barack Obama is likely to be competitive (North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware) tend to feature the kind of larger urban areas where Romney has done well throughout the country, and where his relatively strong appeal across party lines will be a bigger factor than whatever marginal discouragement is suffered by the “very conservative” voters he lost in the primaries.

The underlying reality is that there is nothing particularly mysterious about Romney’s relative weakness in Southern primaries. He’s doing well in the South among precisely the same kind of voters (urban-suburban dwellers, self-identified moderates and “somewhat conservative” voters, Catholics and other non-evangelicals) as elsewhere; there just happen to be more “very conservative,” rural and exurban, and evangelical voters in the South, especially the Deep South.

It is true, however, that if Romney exhibits chronic weakness in both the South and the Midwest, he could still, in theory, lose the nomination—particularly if Santorum and Gingrich can divide the states and avoid dividing their votes. I wouldn’t bet against Mitt even then, since he can continue to pile up votes from unpledged officeholders, the bicoastal states, and Western Mormons, while consistently picking up delegates in his “weak” areas (including some big hauls, as in Ohio and Virginia, where his superior organization gives him significantly more delegates than he ought to win based on his popularity).

At the moment, though, Romney seems to be in danger of eluding a third opportunity to nail down the nomination (the first after his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, the second after big wins in South Carolina and Nevada). And perceptions that he can’t win in specific regions of the country, or specific segments of the party, certainly won’t help. Unfortunately for Romney, those fears will continue to bedevil him until it’s clear that he can’t be mathematically denied the nomination.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this article originally mistakenly referred to Alaska, rather than Alabama, as a former Confederate state. We regret the error.