Post-Mitt-Mortem: It's beginning to look a lot like Reagan
Ah, the South: Kicking expectant presidential candidates in the balls since 19… whatever. OK, with the GOP, that's not always true. Though early-voting South Carolina and Georgia can be a little fickle, the rest of the states -- when they don't have a local boy in the race -- tend to fall in a winner-take-us-all pattern.
No, really. Let's play the Presidential Primary Game that everyone loves best: The last time a Republican lost Mississippi and won the nomination was in… wait for it… Never. Since Mississippi began holding presidential primaries (instead of caucuses), no candidate has lost Mississippi in the primary and won the nomination.
What about the last time someone lost Alabama and won the nomination? OK, OK, 2008. John McCain won Mississippi but lost Alabama -- to Mike Huckabee. So, more interesting question: When was the last time a non-southerner won Alabama but didn't win the nomination?
Well, for that, we'd need to travel back to a simpler time, a time when candidates came to office through the auspices of double resignation. It was a time when a young, former Democrat from Illinois (and California) with just a smile on his face, a dream in his heart, and a plucky second wife on his arm made a charge through the country calling for change -- for the second time.
And suddenly it's 1976 in here.
That year, the incumbent, President Gerald Ford, did win Mississippi's state delegation support (no primary yet), but he lost neighboring Alabama to a little upstart Californian governor named Ronald Reagan.
Reagan fought Ford all the way to the Kansas City convention, where his unfortunate choice of a Pennsylvania moderate as a running mate lost him just enough conservative support to guarantee Ford the victory.
We aren't there yet with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Romney's still massively ahead in money and delegates. His political machine can grind Santorum's into the dust, and Santorum's conservative appeal seems to play well in the central-southern part of the country where, yes, the most conservatives live but also the least number of people (and delegates) actually live, as well.
Still, it's kind of fun to think of Romney as Ford and Santorum and Reagan, isn't it? One, inadvertently stumbling (pun intended) into a reputation as a bumbler; the other, a darling of the party's conservative wing but lacking (at first) the political machinery to actually mount a serious challenge -- until, with a sudden, unexpected string of victories, he could.
What's not at all alike in these scenarios, of course, is the Republican party. The primary issues in 1976 were foreign, not domestic, and certainly not broadly social. In the words of Professor John Aldrich, in his 1980 book Before the Convention: Strategies and Choices in Presidential Elections, "Reagan… had the problem of running a campaign against an opponent whose basic domestic positions were just not that different."
Does that sound much like today? Well… no. It's hard to believe that Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are part of the same party, much less that their domestic agendas might look anything alike as potential presidents.
Where 1976 does look more familiar is in the way that the convention fell apart. Here, though, I see Romney as Reagan -- too eager to compromise, too quick to court. Reagan in '76 reached for a moderate in an attempt to secure a few super delegates from the North, and in so doing, lost Southern and conservative support.
Romney, in '12, is reaching out to grasp the wrong hands all the time. Instead of owning his own record and his own positions throughout the campaign, he's been running to the locals -- a disastrous attempt when you so very, very clearly aren't from around these parts. If we get close to the convention without a declared victor, there's nothing in his current and past behavior to signal that he wouldn't try to cut an impossible, backfiring, ridiculously unprincipled deal to tie up the remaining votes.
In fact, I think that's the only way Santorum wins the nomination: Only Romney can beat Romney now.
The good news for the governor, I guess, is that even Reagan had to run three times before he could win. Romney 2016? Anybody?