With Mitch Daniels officially out of the race, Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee now a distant after-thought, and Newt Gingrich’s campaign running on fumes, pundits of all political stripes are finding it hard to shake a persistent belief that there’s a gaping hole in the Republican presidential field. Indeed, the most frequent theme that keeps cropping up in smart analysis of the current state of play is that the contest cries out for a late-entering, credible southern candidate. The figure most often pointed to is Texas Governor Rick Perry, on the grounds that, well, southerners are especially inclined to vote for southerners, and no matter who wins Iowa or Nevada or New Hampshire, the real deal may go down in Dixie. But these analyses all suffer from the same flaw: They overestimate the pull of regional affinity and underestimate ideology. And while, in the past, significant regional differences existed when it came to ideological belief within the Republican Party, that era is sunsetting and, with it, so too are the built-in advantages of the southern Republican candidate.
As a South Carolina native, albeit an expat and something of a liberal scalawag, I’m always intrigued by Confeder-o-centric theories of national politics, particularly if they are advanced by Yankees who seem to be approaching the strange and atavistic characteristics of the region with oven mittens and tongs.
One such Yankee is The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost, who comes at the subject while utilizing the highly suspect claim that the South is actually just a subset of a mega-region called the Sunbelt that stretches from Virginia to California, and that has dominated national politics in recent decades. With this axiom firmly in place, Cost can easily demonstrate that Sunbelt voters tend to support Sunbelt candidates for president. But if “Sunbelt” is a time-worn term for explaining political, demographic, and economic trends, it’s not actually meaningful at all when it comes to explaining southern cultural affinity. Southerners, white or black, do not tend to view Californians or Arizonans or Nevadans as part of their family. To the extent that you hear from real people about the Sunbelt in most of the South, it refers to an aspiring college athletic conference that is totally eclipsed by the SEC and ACC. Cost’s suggestion that southerners gravitated to Sunbelt candidates from outside the South like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and John McCain for reasons of regional solidarity is therefore dubious at best.
From a more defensible empirical foundation, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver looked at regional solidarity in Republican presidential primary contests and concluded that southerners (using a reasonable definition of the term) were more likely to support a local candidate than Republicans (or for that matter, Democrats) in other regions. But in discussing regional affinity issues, Silver underrates the external factor of ideology. Until fairly recently, southern Republicans were ideologically distinct from GOPers in other regions, but that’s hardly the case now. If you did a blind test today of the messages of Republican candidates for president, you would not have much reason to assume that this candidate or that was from this place or that. For decades, southern Republicans have been known for hostility to the very idea of unions. That is now an increasingly entrenched national GOP position, as demonstrated by the agendas of Republican governors in Michigan and Ohio. Hard-core southern conservative litmus tests on abortion, same-sex marriage, federal civil rights efforts, energy policy, and welfare (defined as any measure that redistributes income to help the poor) are now also standard national GOP fare. So do southern Republicans still need a southerner to preach their gospel these days? Not really.
Moreover, one can make a strong case that ideology, more than home cooking, has always been the deciding factor in southern Republican presidential preferences. The two deities of modern southern Republicanism are Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, neither of them southerners in any respect other than ideology. In 1980, Reagan nailed down the GOP nomination between March 8 and March 11 in four southern states—South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia—defeating southerners John Connally, George H.W. Bush, and Howard Baker in the process. In 1996, Kansan Bob Dole beat southerner Lamar Alexander throughout the South after establishing himself as the orthodox conservative favorite. And while George W. Bush beat John McCain in South Carolina in 2000, it hardly seems due to the fact that he was southern. Rather, it was because Bush was the candidate of the conservative establishment (especially its religious wing) that considered McCain a deadly threat to its power in the GOP. And did Mike Huckabee’s battle against McCain in the South in 2008 depend on his southern identity (compared to, say, me, Huck has little or no discernable southern accent), or on the fact that he is a conservative evangelical Protestant minister?
It seems likely, in other words, that southern Republicans tend to support the most conservative viable candidate in presidential primaries at least as much as they support fellow-southerners. This hypothesis more reliably explains the results in southern presidential primaries in years when both southerners (Bush 43) and non-southerners (McCain), Sunbelt (Reagan) and Midwest (Dole) candidates, have won. This could play out once again in 2012 if, for example, Rick Perry decides to run, but South Carolina’s Jim DeMint and Nikki Haley endorse Tim Pawlenty, a conservative evangelical beloved of anti-abortion activists. In that scenario, it’s very unlikely that Perry would win in the Palmetto State just because he is from Texas, as opposed to Minnesota. The limited appeal of regional identity would become even more obvious if Perry’s opponent in the South turned out to be Sarah Palin, who is from an area nearly as far away from South Carolina as you can get.
To be sure, it doesn’t hurt a Republican candidate running in the South to show some regional street cred, whether it’s through an accent or a familiarity with what to say in a Southern Baptist Church in Greenville or what to order at Lizard's Thicket in Columbia. But it’s not enough. More than anything else, Southern Republicans love conservative ideology, and they’ll take it where they can find it, even if it’s articulated in the alien tones of Minnesota or Alaska.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
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