The Romney campaign, as well as the Last of the Mohican Moderates like David Frum, are doing their best to downplay Rick Santorum’s wins in Alabama and Mississippi by casting those states as deeply unrepresentative of the national electorate (less representative than American Samoa?). True, the Deep South will be irrelevant come November—when one party consistently wins 80-90 percent of the white vote, as the Republicans do in presidential elections in Mississsippi and Alabama, then you ain’t exactly swing territory.
But it’s also wrong to entirely dismiss Romney’s weak Southern showing out of hand. It would be one thing if moderate establishment-type Republicans had always struggled in the South—then his losses there could be chalked up to a longstanding ideological predilection. But this simply isn’t the case. George H.W. Bush, the lord of Kennebunkport; Bob Dole, the Kansan fixture of the Senate; and John McCain, the Sedonan campaign finance reformer all managed to win a basic level of acceptance among Southern Republicans that has so far eluded Romney.
Most of the commentary on this has focused on Romney’s religion, and to be sure there is some anti-Mormon bias at play. But I’m surprised that more haven’t focused on another contrast between Romney and his moderate Republican forerunners: They were war veterans, and he is not. In the region that prizes military service more than any other, Bush’s aviation heroics, Dole’s paralyzed right arm and McCain’s years in North Vietnamese captivity lent them fundamental credibility and a connection with voters, particularly fellow veterans. McCain might’ve disagreed about voters in South Carolina about immigration or climate change, but he could crack one of his Marine jokes, or go on one of his solemn Country First turns, and have the crowd eating out of his hand. With Dole and Bush, the appeal was less explicit, but it was still there; everyone knew where they’d been.
Romney has nothing to draw on here. Quite the opposite—when he was asked in 2007 why none of his five sons had served in the military, he answered, to widespread derision, “One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected.” Making matters trickier for Romney, this factor is in fact linked with his religion: He avoided being drafted during the Vietnam War by claiming an exemption for his 30-month missionary duty in France. Who knows, though, maybe he can salvage at least a slight bit out of value from this when he’s campaigning in Louisiana in the next two weeks. If you thought he was pandering with his talk of “cheesy grits” in Mississippi and Alabama, just wait til he starts breaking out his French when he’s surrounded by beignets and cafe au lait. Quel horreur.