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Does Regionalism Matter Anymore, Y'all?

The presidential election brings out the media's obsession with regional differences. Reporters and politicians do stand-ups from cornfields in the Midwest, beaches in California, honky-tonks in Texas — and in front of this sand sculpture of the GOP candidates in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last weekend.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP/Getty Images
The presidential election brings out the media's obsession with regional differences. Reporters and politicians do stand-ups from cornfields in the Midwest, beaches in California, honky-tonks in Texas — and in front of this sand sculpture of the GOP candidates in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last weekend.

The race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is fixing to get, as we Southerners tongue-in-cheekly say, about as slippery as a greased pig in a hog wallow. Nasty as a old possum in a croaker sack. Murky as South Carolina swamp mud.

The Republican primary focus is shifting to the South, where folks talk and act different from the rest of the country. And where they look for different characteristics in candidates than other regions of the ...

Whoa now, hoss. That last part may not be so true anymore. It's true that Georgia's Newt Gingrich is nipping at the heels of Mitt Romney like a pup on pepper sauce.

But if Romney winds up winning Saturday's South Carolina primary, you could argue that it's because the good people of Columbia have the same interests, the same concerns and the same passions as the denizens of Des Moines and Nashua.

After all, Romney was a lead dog in Iowa and New Hampshire, two distinctly different states with two distinctly different constituencies. So if he's as successful in South Carolina, does that signal the end of regional bias in national politics?

We asked a passel of political scientists.

Mac McCorkle, who teaches the politics of public policy at Duke University, says South Carolina's support for Romney is in stark contrast to the state's support in 1948 for its Favorite Son, segregationist Strom Thurmond, who defected from the Democratic Party and signaled the demise of the solid Democratic South.

Now, McCorkle says, if a moderate Massachusetts Mormon is the pick of the litter for the dominant Republican Party in South Carolina and the South, "that would be an amazing turn of events," McCorkle says, "and would seem to be the end to Southern regionalism."

Pork Chop On A Stick

The presidential election sure enough brings out the media's obsession with regional differences. Reporters file dispatches from dimly lit diners and indigenous state fairs. They do stand-ups from cornfields in the Midwest; beaches in California; honky-tonks in Texas and Tennessee.

There have been a mess of local color moments during the 2012 cycle: Fox News showing Herman Cain sending one of his staff members to get a "pork chop on a stick" in Iowa. MSNBC featuring Jon Huntsman speaking at a traditional town hall meeting in New Hampshire.

And then there was CNN's Soledad O'Brien explaining to legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin — speaking of Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and former chairman of the Republican National Committee — that Boss Hogg was the big bad sheriff in the TV show Starsky and Hutch.

Of course, Boss Hogg was actually the big bad county commissioner in the TV show Dukes of Hazzard, but that makes no never mind. To the denizens of midtown Manhattan, the streets of Southern California might as well be the dirt roads of Georgia. Same difference.

To many Americans, regionalism has become a virtual reality. The rest of the country is a pasticcio, a variegated video-game landscape where tumbleweed rolls past skyscrapers, Minneapolis is close to Montana, and the St. Louis Arch is the gateway to the Rockies.

'Too Much Of A New Yorker'

In the past, regional distinctions definitely mattered. They could make or break presidential campaigns.

Writing in the 2000 Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalism, Robert Hendrickson points out that in 1940 many Americans "voted against what H.L. Mencken sarcastically called 'the caressing rayon voice' of the politician Wendell Willkie because the Hoosier pronounced 'American' as 'Amurrican' ...got Henry Wallace in trouble south of the Potomac in 1946 for using the term the common man, which is regarded there as a term of contempt. Some Spokanians voted against John F. Kennedy because he pronounced their city's name Spokane (to rhyme with cane) instead of Spoke-ann."

And speaking at a pro-Kennedy rally in 1960, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt said of 1948 Democratic candidate Al Smith: "I think that he was too much of a New Yorker. He knew only New York; he didn't know the rest of the country at all."

Regional preference has continued to play a pivotal role in the system. Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor, says it wasn't that long ago — much more recently than Strom Thurmond — that "we still had lots of Favorite Son candidates who were nominated at the convention."

At the appointed time, Elving says, the Favorite Son would deliver the state's delegates, en masse, to some candidate in exchange for a plum posting — the vice president's slot or a juicy Cabinet seat — or just to make a big regional splash on nomination night.

Occasionally, Elving says, "the Favorite Son from one Southern or Western or even Midwestern state could bond with others from elsewhere to form a regional bloc and really do some serious bargaining over who would get the nomination."

In 1976, Elving says, Jimmy Carter ran as a regional candidate — with enough national appeal among Democrats to win. In 1984, Walter Mondale was a regional candidate "in that he did better in his home region of the Midwest than elsewhere, while losing all but his home state."

Four years later, Al Gore "was an explicitly Southern candidate who did not contest Iowa and New Hampshire but got enough action going in the South on Super Tuesday to establish himself as a player for the future," Elving says. (Ironically, when Gore did finally get the nomination in 2000, he lost his — and this reporter's — home state of Tennessee.)

In 1992, Bill Clinton relied on regionalism "in the sense that he could contest Southern states like Florida, Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee," Elving says. "He was never going to win the South overall, but he could cut into the popular and Electoral College margins there."

And in 2004, Elving adds, George W. Bush "won everything in the South and Mountain West, period. But he lost the rest of the country by an Electoral College ratio of 2-to1. How much more regional than that can you get?"

Economy And Electability

This time around, however, there are mitigating circumstances, says Caroline J. Tolbert, professor of American politics at the University of Iowa and co-author of Why Iowa? How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process. In 2012, the economy is "the overarching issue for voters" in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees with Tolbert. "The state of the nation's economy and the slow recovery make the context across states similar and important," Vavreck says.

The economy is almost always a campaign issue, Vavreck says, but this year it has become a hot-button issue earlier in the game. The country's slow economic recovery, she says, "has sharpened the focus on the economy during the nominating process."

Another element, electability — that is, the probability of beating President Obama in the general election — "has always been an important consideration to primary voters, and this year I think the differences on this dimension are more clear than in previous years," Vavreck says.

"This has also made Romney a focal candidate. The others in the field this year have more profound weaknesses in terms of electability than did Mike Huckabee or Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson, for example, all of whom were popular candidates at this point in the process in 2008," Vavreck continues.

If Romney does win South Carolina and/or Florida and other primaries in the South, it will be meaningful. Larry M. Bartels, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, says that "the South has gradually become less politically distinctive over the past 60 years."

But, Bartels adds, specific primary and caucus outcomes are still "quite sensitive to idiosyncratic factors — for example, who else is in the field, who has money and organization, who has 'momentum' based on recent outcomes and media coverage."

If Romney carries the South in the 2012 primary season, according to Bartels, "it will say more about the weakness of the Republican field than about the state of Southern regionalism."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.