Even against Romney, Obama would have tough time carrying the South

Back in the “ancient times” of January and early March, 2012, Mitt Romney was unable to carry  early Southern states such as South Carolina and Georgia. A line of conventional thinking developed in Republican ranks that it would be bad for the party if it did not have a candidate who would be strong in the South, the party’s most loyal and reliable region.

The arguments used by those who saw the obvious disconnect between Romney and Dixie were strengthened on Tuesday, March 13, when Romney came in third  in both Alabama and Mississippi. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both had more solid following in the south.

If Romney has the strength outside the South to win a considerable number of states, and that is only possible if the economy sputters, then his ability to carry the South would likely provide him with the necessary margin to win the Electoral College.

With our Electoral College system structured so that the winner of each state commands all the electoral votes from that state,  theoretically Romney only needs to be strong enough in the South to defeat President Barack Obama by one vote in each of the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. This renders moot the question of whether Santorum or Gingrich would be stronger in the South. The margin of victory in each state doesn’t matter.. Despite not winning a single Southern state other than Florida against his Republican competitors, Romney seems capable of carrying the South.

As the primaries have demonstrated, a strong November showing by Romney in Dixie would not necessarily mean that he would be popular in those states. It would only mean that he would curry the favor of more voters than President Obama. The chances of Barack Obama carrying the South are minimal for a variety of reasons.

To recognize the challenges that President Obama would face in most Southern states, consider how he fared in 2008 against his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain.

State (% African-American)ObamaMcCain
Texas (12%)44%55%
Louisiana (32%)40%59%
Mississippi (37%)43%56%
Alabama (26%)39%61%
Georgia (31%)47%52%
Florida (16%)51%48%
South Carolina (28%)45%54%
North Carolina (22%)50%49%
Virginia (19%)53%47%
Tennessee (17%)41%58%
Kentucky (8%)42%57%
Arkansas (15%)39%59%

Nationwide, 12.6% of the population is African-American

Mississippi Presidential, 2008

Even though President Obama would have a natural advantage in states with high African-American populations, it does not mean that his chances of carrying those states would necessarily be good. Three of the states listed above have African-American populations over 30% (Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). Two others (Alabama and South Carolina) are in the high 20s. Yet the average margin of victory for McCain in these states with high African-American populations was 14%. There is minimal advantage to an African-American candidate running in the southern states with a high percentage of African-American voters. One only needs to know that in 2008, 90% of white males voted against Barack Obama. This was in a state in which 37% of the population is African-American, but Obama lost by 13%. Thus, it’s hard to imagine Obama winning in Mississippi in 2012, even against a candidate as weak as Mitt Romney.

This means that if the Republicans nominate  Romney, who is not particularly popular in the South, they have a lot to give in terms of reaching the necessary level of support to win in the South.

It’s quite possible that Mitt Romney will be defeated for the Republican nomination by another candidate, or even more likely that he will defeat himself. But should the GOP choose to anoint him with their nomination, carrying the South will be among the least of their concerns. With his awkwardness and the enormous distance between the way he lives his life and how most Americans do, he would have a difficult time defeating Barack Obama even if the current economic recovery subsides or is reversed. At this point progressives can feel confident that either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum would each make more mistakes in a week than Barack Obama would over the length of a campaign. But this shouldn’t lull us into complacency. Anything can happen including a host of dirty tricks by the Republicans. As was the case in 2008, Barack Obama will have to win with very little electoral support in the South.