To win re-election, Barack Obama must cement the inroads he made into the land of Dixie in 2008. But Southern conservatives won’t let him. Of the nine states that Obama flipped from George W. Bush in 2004, three – Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida – are in the South. While winning these states back is no guarantee that the Republican nominee will get to 270 electoral votes, a scenario in which Obama fails to carry Virginia and still wins is hard to construct. Losing North Carolina and Florida leaves him with even fewer options.
But there is a scenario according to which conservatives will stay home. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham – to name just a few – have been pounding away at Romney. He is the flip-flopper without a core. Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, is the principled conservative. Marital foibles aside, his pro-life and pro-family credentials have never been in doubt. And he is not part of the “establishment.” South Carolina showed us a deeply Red state yearning for a “true believer.” If that is the case elsewhere, Romney simply will not excite conservatives. Turnout will be low, and Obama will win.
Here’s why that scenario is wrong. It is certainly the case that conservatives’ not getting excited about the GOP nominee has led in the past to defeat. Think Dole in ’96, or McCain in ’08. The difference in this cycle is Florida. Yes, turnout in the primary was lower than in ’08 – never a good sign. But Romney split the evangelical vote with Newt Gingrich, 38%-37%. Among those who thought abortion should be illegal, Romney beat Gingrich 40%-38%. Gingrich won among those who considered themselves “very conservative,” but Romney carried the day 52%-32% among those who styled themselves “somewhat conservative."
I suspect that in the general election, North Carolina and Virginia will be more like Florida than South Carolina – the evangelicals more moderate and forgiving. Despite the massive lead Gingrich enjoys over Romney in some deep Southern states (the most recent poll I was told of had him leading Gingrich 51%-19% in Mississippi), these states will never go for Obama – no matter how many conservatives sit it out (despite not being big for McCain, Mississippians recorded the largest turnout in a presidential election ever in 2008 and gave McCain more than 56% of the vote). The question is more moderate states like North Carolina and Virginia. And Romney, in Florida, gave every indication that he can be competitive there.
A generic Republican has advantages over President Obama going into North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida. The last time North Carolina voted for a Democrat President before 2008 was 1976. In 2010, Republicans swept both chambers of the State Legislature and picked up a US House seat. The last time Virginia voted for a Democrat President before 2008 was 1964. In 2009, as in North Carolina, Republicans gained the House of Delegates; in 2010, it was three House seats. And in Florida, Republicans added four House seats and increased their majorities in both the state House and Senate.
But Mitt Romney is not a generic Republican. He has demonstrated that he can hold his own among evangelicals. By rallying to him in 2012, these voters will make Obama’s re-elect chances a tough proposition.
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