Mitt, Grits and Grit By CHARLES M. BLOW
“I’m learning to say ‘y’all,’ and I like grits. Things, strange things are happening to me.”
Those are the words of Willard Mitt Romney campaigning in Pascagoula, Miss., this week.
Wow. Note to Mitt: As a Southerner, I’ve never known us to find caricature endearing. But welcome to the Deep South anyway, Mitt. I wonder if you’ve been introduced to one of my favorite Southern sayings: the backhanded “Bless your heart.”
By all accounts you’re going to need it. No one expects you to do well on Tuesday when Mississippi and Alabama hold their primaries.
(Kansas holds its caucuses on Saturday, and Rick Santorum is leading the polls there.)
When Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi endorsed Romney on Thursday, he tried his best to humanize him, saying: “He just has a warm, comfortable way about him. I like to see a man when he’s holding a baby. And he looks like he’s held a baby before. Let me tell you, this man is connecting with the people of this nation, and it is about those simple things.” He knows how to hold a baby? Nice try, governor. Bless your heart.
According to Gallup, Mississippi is the most conservative state in the union, and Alabama clocks in at No. 4. Romney continues to struggle with more conservative voters. In the 2008 elections, 7 out of 10 Mississippi primary voters described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. Romney has also struggled with that group.
Last Tuesday, in the primaries in the states of Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee, about 70 percent of voters said it was important that their candidate share their religious views. Romney won no more than a quarter of those voters in each state. Welcome to the Southern G.O.P. Bless your heart.
Some argue that this is inconsequential and that all Romney has to do is win the nomination and rank-and-file Republicans will fall in line. They even argue that his less-than-strident, often inconsistent, views may be an asset in a postnomination tack to the middle.
It is true that these states are in no danger of swinging Democratic. Mississippi and Alabama haven’t voted Democratic since 1976. And since Mississippi started holding primaries, no Republican candidate except the eventual presidential nominee has won the state, according to Catherine Morse, a University of Michigan government and political science librarian.
In fact, Obama lost both states to John McCain in 2008 by large margins, and the votes were largely along racial lines. In both states, 88 percent of whites voted for McCain, while 98 percent of blacks voted for Obama.
Obama will not win Mississippi and Alabama, period. But that’s not the issue. The issue is enthusiasm, which has a way of bleeding across borders and ideological boundaries.
In elections, enthusiasm has two sources: for your candidate or against the other. We know well that there is a high level of hostility toward Obama on the right, but he still maintains a number of liberal devotees. Although there are some on the left who have softened on him, he still has a wide swath of passionate supporters who seem to feel that he is moving in the right direction and deserves a chance to finish the work he has started. In fact, according to Gallup, at this point in the race, Democrats are more enthusiastic about Obama than Republicans are about Romney.
The elections will boil down to a duel between anger and optimism, and in general elections optimism wins. Energy wins. Vision wins.
If the message that emerges from the nominating process is that Republican voters lack confidence in their candidate, that is not a message that can be easily sold to swing voters. It’s hard to point to your candidate’s good qualities when you’re using your hands to hold your own nose.
If the Republican nominee can’t appeal to his own base, how can he expect to draw from the middle and the left?
This is the conservative conundrum.
The Republican Party had an opening as wide as the Gulf of Mexico to unseat President Obama, but it appears that it could close with a weak candidate. The president has been hammered by a sputtering economy and hemmed in by an intransigent Congress. All the Republicans needed was a presidential nominee who could capture their discontent on a gritty, granular level and put a positive, big-picture, forward-looking face on it.
Instead, they find themselves with a scraggly lot of scary characters, each with a handicap larger than the next. And the one who’s likely to win the nomination is the one whom the base has the biggest doubts about. He has the good looks of a president but not the guts of one. The only view that he has consistently held is that he wants to win. Everything else is negotiable.
He projects the slick feel of a man who’s trying to sell you something that you don’t want by telling you something that you don’t believe. People don’t trust and can’t fully endorse it, even the ones who deeply dislike the president. In fact, poll after poll finds that the longer the nomination fight drags on and the more people come to know Romney, the higher their unfavorable opinions of him climb.
Furthermore, postnomination pivots have become more difficult in a world driven by YouTube, social media and citizen activism, where prenomination politicking lives forever online in a candidate’s own voice (and often on video).
Unfortunately for Romney, grits don’t give you grit. Dabbling in dialectic speech won’t quench people’s thirst for straight talk. Being called warm and comfortable doesn’t remove the gut feeling that you are cold and rigid. There is something missing from the core of the man, and people can see straight through him.
That makes places like Mississippi a real litmus test — of Romney’s ability to convert his base by connecting with it. Mississippi is a world away from Massachusetts. It’s a ruby-red state and the heart of conservatism. Mississippi is where he has to sell himself.
Bless his heart, y’all.
© 2012, agentleman.