Romney Down South: Can Mitt Really Win Over Conservatives in Dixie?

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Evan Vucci / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney poses for photographs during a campaign stop at Thompson Tractor March 9, 2012, in Birmingham, Alabama.

“I’m learning to say ‘y’all’ and I like grits,” Mitt Romney recently told a crowd in Pascagoula, Mississippi. “Strange things are happening to me.” But has the Boston private equity executive turned Republican technocrat turned presidential front-runner, whom the latest polls shows running even with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in Tuesday’s southern primary states, really undergone a deep-fried conservative metamorphosis? Don’t count on it, even if Romney outperforms expectations tonight in Mississippi and Alabama.

According to Public Policy Polling, Romney is clocking 31% support in Mississippi, where Gingrich leads with 33% and Santorum notches 27%, and in Alabama, where Gingrich pulls 30% and Santorum 29%. A major factor in these narrow margins is that Santorum and Gingrich are evenly splitting those who consider themselves “very conservative” — Gingrich picks up many of the Tea Party-inclined, while Santorum dazzles Evangelicals, who comprise a huge chunk of the electorate in the Deep South. Romney is also benefiting from the fact that both contests are open primaries — he polls well among Democrats and those who consider themselves moderate or somewhat liberal.

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The surveys could be wildly misstating the balance of these contests. New York Times polling arbiter Nate Silver points out that pollsters badly missed the mark in both parties’ Alabama primaries in 2008, miscalculating the GOP ledger by as much as 20 points. And in the contests so far in 2012, the larger the Evangelical bloc, the worse Romney has performed. Born-again turnout in both Mississippi and Alabama will likely top 70% or 80% on Tuesday, a portion as large or larger than the Evangelical blocs in South Carolina, which Romney lost to Gingrich in January, and in Tennessee and Oklahoma, which Romney lost to Santorum on Super Tuesday.

Either way, that leaves us with suspenseful primaries to watch on Tuesday night, but not ones in which Romney will likely demonstrate a transformation of his appeal to arch-conservatives in Dixie. Does that matter? Santorum is arguing that it does.

On Monday, his campaign sent around a memo entitled “Santorum Path to Delegate Victory,” which one might have thought was a document laying out how their guy could win the Republican nomination. But it wasn’t really. Sure, consultant John Patrick Yob made the case that Santorum’s advantage with activists will help swing local conventions, which allocate delegates in most caucus states (Ron Paul’s strategy, basically), and that the primary calender is back-loaded with some favorable contests for Santorum, with Texas being the biggie on May 29. But the memo mostly belabored Romney’s well-trod problems with conservatives, an exercise that exposed the true nature of the Republican contest going forward. Santorum isn’t playing for a first-ballot win at the convention in Tampa anymore; he’s trying to deny Romney the majority he needs to get one.

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It’s right there in the memo: “Majority Needed for Romney, Not for Santorum” one section reads, claiming that if Mitt fails to secure a first-round victory, the activists will rally to his more conservative rival. “If the opportunity provides itself in an open convention, they are not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who has been outspending his opponent 10-to-1 and can’t win the election outright,” Santorum explained to NBC on Monday. Santorum’s convention spin aside, whether Romney can in fact win outright is the real question.

To that end, here’s some basic math from delegate dowsing rod Josh Putnam: Romney has won 391 bound or pledged delegates, 59% of those handed out to date and is roughly a third of the way to 1,144, the number required to clinch the nomination. Santorum has won 133, 20% to date and little more than a tenth of what he’d need to get a majority. At 112, Gingrich isn’t far behind Santorum. In short, Romney is on track. And if he wins a third of the vote Tuesday in Mississippi and Alabama’s primaries, which will likely allocate most of their 90 delegates proportionally, he’ll still be in good shape, southern reinvention or not.

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