Authentically inauthentic: why Mitt could win MS and AL

A week or so ago, it seemed incredibly unlikely that Mitt Romney would do well in tomorrow’s primaries in Mississippi and Alabama.  Those deep, deep south states would seem to be hostile territory for a candidate whose only political experience is in Massachusetts, and whose strength so far has been moderate states and state with large Mormon populations.  The only question seemed to be whether Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum would be the beneficiary of Romney’s presumed inability to connect with MS and AL voters.

And then something funny happened: polls started coming out showing Romney doing weirdly well in both states.  As of now, 538′s forecast shows Romney with a 53% chance of winning MS, and a 39% chance of winning AL – though 538 also notes that MS and AL have been notoriously difficult to poll accurately in the past, which may mean that everyone’s in for a surprise tonight.

But let’s assume that the projections hold, and Romney wins MS and scores a solid second in AL.  How could this happen?

Seems to me it could happen because Romney, for perhaps the first time in his political career, didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t.  He admitted that these states were “a bit of an away game”; he awkwardly and jokingly professed to “learning” to like grits and say “y’all.”  He knows he’s a fish out of water down there; so does everybody else; and neither he nor anyone else is pretending otherwise.

And you know what?  When a politician is honest both with himself and the voters, all of a sudden it’s a lot easier to get them to listen to what you have to say.  If Romney went down to MS and AL and told the voters that they should vote for him because he’s just like them, they’d laugh at him and vote for someone else.  But by saying, essentially, “I know I’m not like you, but listen to what I have to say anyway,” he’s actually reaching some of them.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the not-Mitt vote (which remains a majority, and therefore a real problem for Romney) seems to be fairly evenly divided between Santorum and Gingrich in both states (538′s projection in MS is Gingrich 33, Santorum 26, and in AL it’s Gingrich 32, Santorum 28).  Nonetheless, if Romney does well tomorrow, I’d suggest that it was at least in part because instead of trying to paper over his inauthenticity like he usually does, he embraced it.


14 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. he's still generating some quotable quotes, though

    Like this one:

    In Birmingham, Ala., Romney was endorsed by Randy Owen of the popular country band Alabama. But Romney raised eyebrows when he asked Owen to sing a few lines of “Sweet Home, Alabama,” the iconic hit for a rival band, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Owen gamely obliged.

    But, yeah, I think overall I agree with you David:

    Moments later, he showed good-natured self-awareness, saying he hoped to go hunting with an Alabama friend who “can actually show me which end of the rifle to point.” The audience, crammed under an awning for protection from the storm, laughed with appreciation.

  2. Interesting theory

    But I think Romney’s “strength” (such as it is) in these Deep South states has more to do with your last point about the split in the not-Mitt vote (since, unlike in most states, Gingrich is polling well here), as well as the fact that a decent number of Republican primary voters are voting for Mitt simply to turn the page on the primary and get on to attacking Obama.

    I’m not sure how much it has to do with Mitt being “authentically inauthentic” — especially since it seemed to me that Mitt’s references to “y’all” and grits were a particularly bad example of pandering-gone-wrong rather than joking references to his outsider status.

    • It's certainly true

      that if either Gingrich or Santorum were polling most of the non-Mitt vote, the race would look a lot different. Still, the fact that Romney seems to be polling above 30% in both states is surprising in itself.

  3. Conjecture about his weakness...

    … in the south is moot for the general. Being weak in the south among an electorate that will absolutely give you every electoral vote in the general is no weakness if you’re going to get the nomination anyway.

    • Not necessarily

      Yes, it is irrelevant which Republican wins the primary today because the Republican is near-guaranteed to win in the Deep South anyway, but it does say something about how popular various candidates are among members of the Republicans’ base.

      Make no mistake — Republicans will be fired up to beat Obama in the fall. But it would help the GOP’s cause to have someone the base was really excited about. Clearly, that’s not the case — and Romney’s troubles in Republican base states is a testament to that.

      • True, but...

        … my point was limited to these geographies. I’d submit that because of the electoral college, it really isn’t important to fire up the base in Georgia, as long as Georgia is safe no matter your popularity with the base – which is exactly what we have in the south in general. The popularity of the base matters only where it matters. It does happen that the GOP has pursued a strategy that placates the base (probably much to their regret now – they created a monster) because it can drive turnout. Romney’s troubles in Republican base states testify to his troubles with the base in general, but not the base in the base states – they’re still a lock for him because of who they are voting against (not for). So I find the punditocracy hand-wringing about Romney’s apparent weakness in the south to be a bit of a red herring. He’ll win the south no matter what the hand-wringing. Simply put, his strength in the south isn’t particularly relevant right now with regards to the primary (he’s still going to win) and it won’t be for the general either (he’s still going to carry those EVs).

        It’s much more smart to analyze what’s happening in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. Maybe his weakness with the base (even the base in the south) will have an effect here and that’d be relevant. Moreover, it might be the other way around – doing the kind of things that get the southern base aroused might hurt your chances among Pennsylvania’s independents for example.

  4. Let me see if I have this right

    You’re proposing that our hypothetical Missiabamans are saying “Well, he’s pandering to me, but he’s so awful at it that he expects me to figure out what he’s doing. How honest of him to screw up so badly that I can tell what he’s up to!”

    I tend to believe in simpler explanations.

    sabutai   @   Tue 13 Mar 4:16 PM
  5. Polls last night...

    …showed both states very close with all three candidates within or just outside the margin of error.

  6. Fun post and comments

    I wonder how far Romney could push this – would posthumous baptism ceremonies for George Wallace and John Stennis be going too far?

  7. "why Mitt could win MS and AL"

    BZZZZZZT! Wrong!

    You did it on purpose, DIDN’T YOU?? You cursed him by posting this!!

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