It was sort of like the occasional total eclipse of the sun, an event that occurs only rarely and when it does everyone makes it a point to watch because it will be a while before it happens again.
Of course I am referring to the Republican Presidential primary that played out in Mississippi during the week culminating in the March 13, 2012, election. Mississippi was still very much in play on that date because the effort to name a Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama was far from over. Mississippi’s pool of 40 delegates, far from being skimpy leftovers on the campaign floor, was instead a tempting target for frontrunner Mitt Romney to pad his tenuous lead and a necessity for Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in their efforts to gain ground on the leader. The networks and the reporters toting cameras showed up and captured snapshots of Mississippi and Mississippians, warts and all. At the end of the evening Rick Santorum broke through to capture 33 percent of the vote. He was closely followed by Newt Gingrich with 31 percent and national frontrunner Mitt Romney with a best so far in the South 30 percent.
Mississippians brief time in the political sun will be remembered. One of those memories that proved to be quite entertaining was watching the patrician New Englander, Mitt Romney, try to be “Southern.” He bragged twice of eating catfish and proudly announced that he had enjoyed a plate of “cheesy grits” for breakfast. Each such pronouncement was greeted by a few snickers and polite applause.
As a point of personal privilege I believe we let him off light. After all he is trying for the highest office in the land, and he is not likely to be back this way again. Therefore, we should have thrown a “sho nuff” political event like those put on by many experienced rural county supervisors in Mississippi. If Romney could nosh down a plate of boiled “chitlins” and rooster fries and wash it down with a mason jar of sweet tea he might have just won the Mississippi primary. No doubt he was glad to escape Mississippi the next day for the friendlier confines of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York where he had access to cucumber sandwiches with the crust trimmed and perhaps a dab of caviar.
A few weeks earlier in this protracted campaign, Newt Gingrich was considered to be the favorite to waltz through Mississippi and Alabama. It was thought that his Southern ties and his colorful anti-Obama, anti-government diatribes were just the ticket for plain-spoken Southerners who share his contempt. Gingrich was obviously hindered by two main things. There was his virtual disappearance from the campaign trail over the last three weeks – a period that saw a surge into the challenger position by Rick Santorum. Secondly, there is clearly a lingering disgust on the part of many religious conservatives over how Gingrich came by, and subsequently disposed of, his three wives. His continuous invective against Washington, Wall Street, President Obama and the mainstream news media kept him in the thick of things.
Rick Santorum filled in the gaps left by the shortcomings of Newt Gingrich. Santorum has a strong traditional family history built over several decades. His extremely conservative beliefs on gender-related issues seemed to play well with conservative Southern women as well as men. Furthermore, Santorum has few peers in his willingness to lash out against Obama and big-government liberalism. As has been the case in other states prior to Mississippi, Santorum benefitted from a sense of timing and an appearance of true sincerity that appealed to many rank-and-file voters.
Also of note during the week of campaigning was the blanket endorsement of Mitt Romney by the seven Mississippi statewide elected Republicans. This unified front was led by Gov. Phil Bryant. Despite Romney’s third place finish, the endorsements can be viewed as strategically-sound politics. The reasoning here is that most observers believe that, at the end of the day, Romney will secure the GOP nomination. The endorsements and the time spent on the campaign trail by the Governor and the other elected officials should move them nearer to the head of the line should Romney ultimately win the Presidency.
Given that all three of the candidates finished within three percentage points of one another, what does this tell us?
It is clear that all of the differences in social policy and economic policy are of little importance in Mississippi and probably in the rest of the Deep South. The absolute and overriding motivation of Mississippi Republicans and conservative independents in Mississippi is the defeat of Barack Obama. Over and over again, voters were heard to say, “I really don’t care which one wins, just so he beats Obama.”
Given the obvious need to pivot back toward the middle once the nomination is secure, Romney or Santorum will need such “no questions asked” supporters to have a chance of overtaking the incumbent president in November when the prize will be Mississippi’s six electoral votes.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at email@example.com.