Fred Thompson and the GOP's Southern Problem

The inside the beltway political horse race broadcasters are abuzz about the possible (I think likely) entrance into the GOP Presidential race of former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.  In his email report to subscribers, Charles Cook summarizes two polls that show Thompson hurting current frontrunner Rudy Giuliani more than any of the other candidates, with Thompson moving into 3rd or 4th place, and the race tightened from top to bottom:

"The NBC/Journal poll showed Giuliani leading the pack with 32 percent without Thompson and with 28 percent when Thompson was added to the mix. The Cook poll had Giuliani on top with 39 percent without Thompson, and with 33 percent with a Thompson entry.

"The impact on McCain, Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was less noticeable. McCain had 22 percent in the NBC/Journal poll without Thompson and 21 percent with him as a candidate. In Cook, McCain was at 24 percent without Thompson and 22 percent with him. Romney stayed at 12 percent in both versions of the Cook poll question; in the NBC/Journal poll, he had 12 percent without Thompson and 11 percent with Thompson.

"Considering that the margin of error for the Republican primary sample is more than 5 points in each poll, it is clear that Thompson's 12 percent doesn't come at the expense of any one candidate, but might come from frontrunner Giuliani more than the others."

Both the Democratic and Republican Party nominations are wide open at the moment. There is no odds-on favorite in either party. However, my assessment of Thompson's impact is very different from Cook's. I think Thompson hurts Mitt Romney more than McCain or Giuliani, since Romney has been trying to run to the right of the two current frontrunners and Thompson's appeal at the moment is to conservatives unenthusiastic about any of the current entrants.

I also think that if Thompson enters the race, that there is virtually no chance that Newt Gingrich will also enter the race at a later date (I thought this was an unlikely event in any case).  If Thompson, Romney and Gingrich were all fighting for the conservative moniker, with McCain competing for it to some extent as well, that scenario would significantly enhance Giuliani's chances for the nomination, despite whatever some instant snap poll might show.

Charles Cook has never believed Rudy Giuliani could be nominated by the Republicans, given his social policy views and marital history, and he still seems unwilling to accept that it might happen, despite Giuliani's very strong showing in his own polling.  Cook's spin on the impact of a Thompson candidacy is essentially a regurgitation of poll results that plays to his doubts about Giuliani. But reading the results of a snap poll is not the same as serious consideration of how the candidates would be positioned with Thompson in the race .

I think Thompson is by far the least likely of the 4 major GOP candidates to be elected if nominated, assuming he decides to run. This is due to one principal factor; his Southern roots.  This is also one of several reasons why Newt Gingrich is almost certainly unelectable were he to be nominated.

This may not be fair, but it is the reality of the 2008 race. The Democrats have had  success in their multiyear campaign to identify the GOP as largely a Southern regional party, and a bigoted one at that. You may not like it, but pretending that the problem doesn't exist is foolish.

The GOP swept all the southern states in both the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections. Al Gore could not even capture his own state of Tennessee in 2000. Adding in the mountain states and some Midwestern and plains states (Ohio the most important both times), the GOP was able to cobble together a narrow Electoral College majority. 

But the 2006 elections demonstrated real weakness for the GOP in the Midwest- particularly in Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and even reliably Republican Indiana. There was bad news in the West, too: in Montana, Colorado, and Arizona. There was a near total collapse for the Party in the Northeast: Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire most  prominently. Only in the South did the Republicans pretty much hold their own - losing seats in  Texas and Florida due to specific scandals (Delay and Foley), a Senate seat in Virginia due to a terrible mistake-prone campaign by George Allen, and just a few isolated House races elsewhere. 

The GOP's primary problems in the 2008 cycle will be Iraq, and the memory of George Bush. The more closely a candidate is associated with Bush and the Iraq war, the more trouble he will have getting elected next November. But compounding those factors is that anyone who sounds like Bush - meaning a Southerner - will also be a damaged candidate. Fred Thompson sounds like George Bush to too many non-Southerners.  Elites, and many secular Americans not from the South, still have a distinct if inaccurate and superficial view of most Southerners - Bible belt Christians, homophobes, narrow minded racial bigots, a bit dim witted. These stereotypes, always bigoted and unfair, should have disappeared decades ago, as the South was flooded with people from outside the region. (This mass movement of people has also occurred in the West, Southwest and Mountain states). The South has become more like America, as the country has become more homogenized in general. But defining people by their voting patterns, the South is still different.

Those who hate George Bush blame the South and Southerners for his two victories. Why does the Washington press corps hate Bush? The most important reasons I think are that they believe Bush is not like them (not as cynical, a God fearing man, a rancher), but even more because every August he takes them to Waco and Crawford, Texas for a month for his vacation. Bill Clinton took the press with him to Martha's Vineyard.  Ronald Reagan took them to Santa Barbara. George Herbert Walker Bush led the press to  Kennebunkport, Maine in August . For the press to spend a month in August in Crawford is like a month outside the green zone in Baghdad.

Despite impressive personal credentials, high intelligence, and a record of success and leadership in many areas,  Mitt Romney's campaign has not yet taken off. Compare his campaign so far to Barack Obama's. A candidate two years removed from the Illinois State Senate, who has never run anything except for a small legislative staff, is soaring in the polls,  while offering little but a collection of vague pieties about how he will bring us all together to solve all our big problems.

If Thompson enters the race, Romney may be finished. Thompson will be the fresher face on the right, and he is media friendly from his TV shows and movies. The press loves stars.   And Thompson is not Mormon. The country may be ready for an African American or a woman President, but a Mormon? Bigotry still prevails among some of the supposedly most tolerant. 

By the end of this year, I think either McCain or Giuliani will emerge as the centrist alternative to Thompson or Romney, and Giuliani is the more likely of the two. In a head to head race, a conservative, such as Thompson, or Romney, for that matter, could beat Giuliani for the nomination. But Rudy is a far better candidate than Thompson for the general election.

The GOP needs to move beyond the South to win in 2008.  A candidate who can run well in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and  suburban America, is better than one who will pad the victory margin by 5% in Texas . It is how many states  you win, not how much you win them by that counts.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.