Alabama Voters Shifting Further To The Right?

Rick Santorum won the Alabama and Mississippi primaries last night, despite being outspent by GOP front-runner Mitt Romney. Santorum's wins raise questions about the candidates' ability to connect with the party's base. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Jeffrey Hess and John Archibald of The Birmingham News.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. My thanks to Allison Keyes for sitting in for me on short notice yesterday. Later, we will talk about why critics are turning up the heat on organizers of the South by Southwest festival - that's in Austin, Texas - for using homeless people to provide wireless hot spots. We'll take a closer look in a few minutes. But first, we want to turn to big political news from the ongoing Republican presidential primary race.

Rick Santorum pulled off twin victories in Alabama and Mississippi last night, followed by Newt Gingrich, who finished second in both states. Mitt Romney was the winner in caucuses in Hawaii and the American Samoa last night, and he's still far ahead in delegates. But his third-place finishes in the Southern states has some people questioning whether Romney has the momentum to become the Republican nominee. Joining us now to talk about what happened in the primaries last night, two journalists who've kept us informed before on important stories from their states.

John Archibald is a columnist with The Birmingham News in Alabama, and Jeffrey Hess is a reporter with Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson, Mississippi. Welcome back to both of you. Thanks for joining us.

JEFFREY HESS: Thank you, Michel.

JOHN ARCHIBALD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let me start with a clip from Rick Santorum from last night, and I'll ask you all to react to it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICK SANTORUM: The time is now for conservatives to pull together. The time is now to make sure that we have the best chance to win this election. And the best chance to win this election is to nominate a conservative to go up against Barack Obama, who can take him on on every issue.

MARTIN: OK, so John Archibald, I'll start with you. As we've said Mitt Romney's still ahead in delegates. He's still outspent Rick Santorum in these contests, as he has pretty much throughout the race. So what was the key to Rick Santorum's victory, here? What was it?

ARCHIBALD: Well, I think that - that was it, what he said. It's primarily here in the South and that thing that they would call here the Alabama family values. And basically, Mitt Romney, I don't think, has the conservative street cred in the South that either Santorum or Gingrich does.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Hess?

HESS: Oh, and I think the conservative street cred is exactly the right phrase to use there. When he comes to the South, he just doesn't resonate with Southern voters in the same way that Gingrich and Santorum did. That being said, I still think that 30 percent from Mitt Romney's an impressive showing.

MARTIN: Jeffrey, do you think that there was anything in particular that Romney did or did not do that affected his standing there? Or is this more a - and I don't want to use the word protest vote lightly. I don't mean to mean it in a disrespectful way. But the question is: Do people really feel that Rick Santorum can win? Or do they just want to be sure that people understand, you know, their perspective, that he is, in fact, their favorite candidate, that he really articulates what they want to see in their candidate?

HESS: Oh, this is not a protest vote. It's not. I mean, conservative voters here in the South really - or at least in Mississippi - really do feel that Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich have a better shot of going up against Barack Obama and beating him, than when you put up Mitt Romney. There's a sense that he's just too moderate for Republican voters, and they feel that they've been down this road before and it's been a losing battle, and they're not going to go there again.

MARTIN: And, you know, Newt Gingrich had something to say about that last night. Let me play a clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEWT GINGRICH: The fact is, in both states, the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote. And if you're the frontrunner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a frontrunner.

MARTIN: All right, so John Archibald, just sort of unpack this a little bit for me. First of all, vis-a-vis, Newt Gingrich: He is a Southerner. I mean, Newt Gingrich represented Atlanta for many years, you know, in the Congress. And so, first of all, do people buy his argument? And second, well, why do you think he didn't do better?

ARCHIBALD: Well, let's face it. It was pretty much a three-man horse race. It was pretty close, and really, Santorum eked it out at the end, really, in Alabama primarily because there are so many very, very, very conservative people on this ballot on this particular day. I mean, we had the Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore running for Supreme Court.

I mean, it was a perfect storm for him to take Alabama. And at the same time, I agree that Romney actually did better, given that circumstance, than many people believe. I mean, it was a toss-up in the end, and Santorum can claim that win. Whether it does him any good in less-conservative states is another question.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about the Republican primary results with John Archibald of the Birmingham News and Jeffrey Hess of Mississippi Public Broadcasting. So, John, you agree with Jeffrey that it wasn't actually as terrible a night as you might think, even though he came in - for Mitt Romney, even though he came in third, because overall, the conservative vote was kind of split among the three candidates and he still didn't do badly in terms of the overall delegate count.

ARCHIBALD: Right. He didn't do badly and he got, you know, almost 30 percent of the vote. And the religious aspect has a factor here. I mean, for 30 percent of Republicans to vote for a Mormon in Alabama is a bigger deal than you might think - and also a situation where there weren't any contested Democratic races on the statewide level here in the primaries. So there's a good deal of belief that a lot of - or at least a number of Democrats voted in the Republican primary in an attempt to get what they view as the most extreme candidate and what they perceive as the most beatable candidate for Barack Obama closer to the nomination.

MARTIN: What's the evidence of that? Because that stuff, the kind of thing that's always rumored, you know, that people, in fact are doing that. Is there - what's the evidence that, that actually occurs?

ARCHIBALD: Well, there is anecdotal evidence, in terms of I've talked to people who vote - Democrats who voted in the Republican primary. We don't have enough - I don't think it happened.

MARTIN: So, they fessed up? They fessed up?

ARCHIBALD: Right, sure. It's not a secret. I don't think it's as widespread as a lot of people believe, and I don't think it's as universal or organized as that. I've also talked to Democrats who voted for Mitt Romney because they thought he might be the lesser of the two evils. So that's split a little bit, as well.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Hess did you - John Archibald mentioned that, actually, again, that Mitt Romney did pretty well, given that his status as a Mormon is - or a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is still an issue. Now, there was a poll recently from the - a respected think tank that said a majority of the Republican voters - likely Republican voters still think that Barack Obama is a Muslim. So, sort of setting that aside, do you feel that Romney's identity as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was a problem for him? And is it still something he would have to overcome should he become the eventual nominee?

HESS: I think it's less of an issue than just the can-he-beat-Barack-Obama factor. There's a sense among Mississippi voters that I've spoken with that he's just too moderate, and that they've been down this road before. And they've tried the moderate. It didn't work for them in 2008. Why would they try it again? So, I think the desire to beat Barack Obama really supersedes the religious unease.

That being said, there is still a percentage of the electorate that wants someone who shares their religious beliefs and who is evangelical, and there's not the sense that Mitt Romney is that guy, whether he's Mormon or not.

MARTIN: What is the path to - what's the path forward, coming out of these two contests? Jeffrey Hess, do you want to take that question first? And I understand that you're not in the advising business. But just looking at the results of last night, what's the - sort of the path forward, here? You could see Rick Santorum saying to the other candidates: Get out of my way - particularly Newt Gingrich. Get out of my way. Let's consolidate the conservative vote.

HESS: That seems like the path forward, but on the other hand, I spoke with the governor here last night, who was a Mitt Romney - he endorsed Mitt Romney and he said, look, if this thing goes to the convention, Republicans will lose. We've tried that before. Contested conventions mean Republicans lose. And if Republicans want to win and beat Barack Obama, then they have coalesce around someone. And that someone, in the governor's point of view, is Mitt Romney.

But on the other hand, you've had the whole Republican establishment here in this state and across the nation come around behind Mitt Romney, and it hasn't convinced the electorate that he's the guy.

MARTIN: John Archibald?

ARCHIBALD: Well, I think it clearly has to become a two-man race at this point. Gingrich may stay in the race, but the real fight is between Santorum and Romney, and the party's ideology is going to make the choice there, whether they believe a moderate - more moderate candidate has a better chance to win than the other.

MARTIN: And, John, can we learn anything from turnout? I mean, one of the - the rap on Mitt Romney is that there's an enthusiasm gap. I think both of you alluded to this. What do we see going forward in terms of the turnout? Is there any clue there for the rest of the race?

I mean, the other issue - the other data point that people keep talking about is in national polls, how the enthusiasm of independents for the entire GOP field is declining, and the president's poll numbers are inching forward. And some people attribute this to a number of factors. I mean, the fact - you know, we all know what sort of the factors are.

So, John Archibald, what about turnout? What do we see?

ARCHIBALD: Well, it's pretty hard to tell here, because turnout was not that high here. It was - I haven't seen the final numbers, but it was about 30 percent, I do believe, which is less than it would have been a couple of years ago. So I don't think we're getting a true picture of what the country thinks. I think we're getting - through what we saw yesterday - a real clear picture of what rural, conservative voters think, and I'm not sure that that really tells us anything that the country can use as a whole.

MARTIN: Jeffrey?

HESS: Well, I think when it comes to a national election, that just doesn't matter because - from a Mississippi perspective, because Mississippi's going to vote for the Republican nominee, and we don't have a national popular vote. We have an electoral college. So 50 Mississippians could come out and vote for Mitt Romney, or all three million could come out and vote for Mitt Romney, and it's still going to mean the same six electors in the college.

MARTIN: So what is each of you going to be looking to next now that your big night is over for now? So, Jeffrey, what's next on your dance card? What are you going to be paying attention to now for clues as to where this race goes next?

HESS: Well, for us, there's actually a contested congressional race. The last remaining congressional Democrat is out there here in Mississippi. The rest are all Republicans. So that's something to pay attention to, and the lack of enthusiasm from the Republican side and, if there is any enthusiasm from the Democratic side, you know, it could make a difference in that race.

So we are assuming - and it's probably not a good choice in this business - but we're assuming that the Republican nominee is going to be the favored pick here in Mississippi, and then we're looking at how that's going to affect other parts of the race.

MARTIN: OK. John Archibald, final thought from you. What's next on your dance card?

ARCHIBALD: Well, it looks to me like Alabama took a sharp, Evangelical conservative movement to the right, if that's possible. But it seems like we have become more - gone more in that direction than we have in decades. And so we will be following that trend.

MARTIN: John Archibald is a columnist with the Birmingham News in Birmingham, Alabama. He actually joined us from Homewood, Alabama. That's right next door to Birmingham. Jeffrey Hess is a reporter with Mississippi Public Broadcasting. We caught up with him in Jackson, Mississippi.

Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

HESS: Thank you.

ARCHIBALD: Thank you.

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