In the week before the March 13 primary, Newt Gingrich came to Huntsville to talk rockets. Rick Santorum answered a Montgomery think tank’s invitation to speak in Mobile. Mitt Romney pelted everybody with print and TV ads and telephone calls. And the Alabama GOP announced that at least two of the candidates, Gingrich and Santorum, would debate Monday in Birmingham.
After years as a primary-season afterthought but a GOP shoo-in in every general election, Alabama this year has at least a small voice to contribute to the process of selecting a presidential candidate.
“Definitely, this time we matter,” said Richard Fording, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama. “A lot of things have changed, and the changes are in our favor.”
For Alabamians, presidential elections have historically brought on a certain unbearable lightness of being. Late primaries — for much of the last 20 years, Alabama voted in June — left Alabamians with little to do but rubber-stamp a presumptive nominee. Moreover, the state hasn’t gone Democratic in the general election since voters picked Jimmy Carter in 1976, leading most pundits to put the state’s nine electoral votes in the red column long before Election Day. Whether your candidate won or lost, it has often been hard, in Alabama, to tell whether your vote helped them at all.
A bit of attention
Not so this year. With early-on favorite Romney struggling to win the heart of the GOP, and Gingrich and Santorum scrapping for the votes Romney leaves behind, the Republican nomination is still in play.
Romney came out of Super Tuesday with 419 delegates, according to the Associated Press, while Santorum has 178, Gingrich has 107 and Ron Paul just 47. With 1,144 needed to win, Romney’s lead is not large enough to edge out his rivals, who could make a dent large enough to lead to a brokered convention.
That means Alabamians are experiencing the rare thrill of having candidates here asking for their votes.
“We’re getting a little bit of attention, and I think we’re glad to have it,” said Gene Howard, chairman of the Calhoun County Republican Party. Howard said he traveled to Talladega earlier this year to see then-frontrunner Herman Cain — the first nomination contender to visit the area in recent memory — and has invited the four remaining candidates to make an appearance in Calhoun County.
None has answered so far, but Howard said the chances this year are better than in most years.
Political experts seem to agree that Alabama’s slightly higher profile is due to a number of nationwide trends in electoral politics.
One is “frontloading” — the rush among states to set their primary dates earlier and earlier, in hopes that their voters will become as powerful as the voters in the early states.
“If you’re a voter in New Hampshire, you get to meet every candidate,” Fording noted. “That’s just not fair.”
Still, states that moved their primaries up too far in 2008 ran afoul of party rules and saw their convention votes halved or shut out entirely. Alabama hit a sort of sweet spot when it moved the 2008 primary from June to Super Tuesday.
According to University of Alabama political science professor Carol Cassel, it was the 2008 election that put Alabama back on the political map. Alabama may have felt a bit lost in the Super Tuesday shuffle, but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were still in a pitched battle for the Democratic nomination.
“It was a surprise that the battle between Obama and Clinton went on that long,” Cassel said. “But it worked to Alabama’s advantage, and now we have a similar situation with the Republicans.”
Winner take some
And there’s another, less-celebrated factor in Alabama’s rise from obscurity, the experts say. The GOP has moved away from winner-take-all primaries, with more states splitting the delegates based on the number of votes each candidate gets. That makes it harder for a front-runner to deliver the killing blow to the opposition.
“It’s more about delegates than about states, and that makes for a longer race,” Fording said.
Howard, the local GOP party chair, said he expects stronger turnout on March 13 as a result of the new hunger for Alabama votes.
“Voter registration is picking up,” he said. “People want to vote.”
But old habits die hard. While election signs for state and local races have sprouted like mushrooms in yards across Alabama, visible marks of the presidential contest are hard to come by. Fording said that’s because of a general Republican dissatisfaction with the available candidates.
“All of these candidates have obvious strengths and obvious flaws,” he said.
Fording said Santorum, a clear favorite of social conservatives, has turned off female voters with his hard line on birth control while Gingrich, a political veteran with a good understanding of Southern sensibilities, is known too well for his three marriages and past political dust-ups.
And as for Romney? Well, in Fording’s view, the former governor and businessman is the perfect man — for someplace else.
“If you could design a Republican who wouldn’t work in the South, that candidate would look like Romney,” he said. “He’s rich, which doesn’t connect here. He’s from Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the country. And he’s a Mormon, which many evangelicals view in the same way a Catholic candidate was viewed 50 years ago.”
Cold in November?
Obama is running uncontested in the Democratic primary, and there are no signs of a pre-primary campaign by the president.
Four years ago, Obama touted a “50-state strategy” in which his campaign would supposedly write off no state — no matter how red — in the general election. By September of 2008, Time magazine reported, Obama was pulling back from that plan, cutting staff in Republican states to focus more resources on the battlegrounds.
Fording said a 50-state approach probably isn’t a good strategy, given the winner-take-all nature of electoral college votes and Alabama’s strongly conservative white majority. Fording said that in a poll from late last year Obama’s disapproval rating among white Alabama voters was at 90 percent. That suggests little change from 2008, when Obama lost the state by 22 points in voting that was sharply divided along racial lines.
Still, Fording said, a 50-state strategy would be workable for a candidate with enough resources.
“If you’ve got enough money to cover the swing states and these states as well, I guess you could do it,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem like the best approach.”
That could be bad news for local voters who enjoy being romanced by the candidates. The sweet words could all end on Tuesday.
“We’ve been getting a lot of attention in the past week,” Howard said. “And that’s all the attention we’re going to get.”
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.