Notes from an Alabama Rally
By Jenny Zeng
Super Tuesday may be over, but the Republican primary is still open and heating up in Mississippi and Alabama — two states holding their primaries this week. This “Deep South Super Tuesday” of sorts is garnering a lot of attention from the candidates, and both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are banking on Southern wins to sustain their campaigns against Mitt Romney’s.
On a class assignment to check out a political event, I thought it was a good time to observe my first political rally. That’s how, last Friday, I found myself at a Gingrich event in Mobile, Alabama, standing among a crowd of around 500 in an old barn that’s been re-appropriated into an antique car showroom. Rows of vintage cars gleamed under fluorescent lights, and the dulcet sounds of The Karate Kid theme song and Rick Derringer belting, “I am a real American! Fight for the rights of every man!” filled the air. A huge poster of a gas pump emblazoned with “250” and “NEWT” stood in a corner — a fitting prop for Gingrich’s new “250” campaign catchphrase for a return to $2.50 gasoline and more domestic drilling.
But, aside from learning about Gingrich’s campaign music repertoire and aversion to algal biofuel, here are three takeaways from this rally that could shed light on Gingrich’s fortunes for Deep South Super Tuesday and beyond.
1. Newt Gingrich wants you to know that he likes grits.
Cultural and identity politics are alive and well and, in the South, being showcased with –you guessed it– grits. In fact, candidates themselves are positioning grits as a sort of litmus test to understanding the South. Mitt Romney may have exacerbated his “out of touch” reputation when he made a weak pass at the Southern base by proclaiming himself an overnight grits loving, y’all-saying, “unofficial Southerner.”
This didn’t escape Gingrich’s ire. Besides ideology and politics, candidate characteristics and identity are a powerful factor in this primary race. As a former Georgia representative, Gingrich is the only Southern candidate aside from Ron Paul (and really, isn’t Texas its own republic or something?). Addressing the crowd in Mobile, Gingrich made sure to begin his stump speech with his love of grits; “If we’re campaigning in Alabama and Mississippi,” and “people are wondering” about the candidates, he said, “Governor Romney indicated yesterday morning was the first time he’d ever tasted grits.” Amid the crowd’s laughter, Gingrich continued, “I just wanted to reassure all of you that I have had some acquaintance with a variety of forms, whether it’s with shrimp, with cheese, with gravy — I get it.”
The woman standing to my right smiled and raised her “NEWT 2012” sign higher.
2. But, being Southern won’t save Gingrich from Santorum.
There’s been a common theme that, by giving almost everyone who’s not Romney a fighting chance, Republicans are sabotaging their own presidential chances. They may well be doing just that. But the average Santorum or Gingrich supporter doesn’t see it that way.
Indeed, it seems that many Republicans who have ruled Romney out may be having trouble deciding between Santorum and Gingrich, and I spoke to two women at the rally making such a choice. Both were deeply dissatisfied with President Obama and his handling of energy and the economy. But, both agreed that Romney is “just as bad.” And as for President Obama, another woman told me she didn’t understand how anyone could possibly vote for him this election.
Perhaps, besides any notions of “sticking it” to the Republican establishment or even fighting for any specific conservative values, a Santorum or Gingrich supporter may simply be extremely confident about Republican prospects in the general election. Whether this confidence is prudent is more debatable.
3. Gingrich needs your money. And your Twitter and Facebook friends.
Campaign finance is attracting a lot of attention this primary season. Money is power, and money funds the staffers, doughnuts, attack ads, and trips that go into a successful campaign. While Gingrich’s campaign has been kept alive in part by some very substantial donations, he falls well behind Romney in the funding race. Gingrich tried to spin this positively, saying that he’s the only one capable of a campaign to the White House since Romney’s “Wall Street” strategy of “drowning” competitors in negative advertising won’t work against President Obama’s war chest. Instead, Gingrich wants to build a more expansive approach to fundraising, and he encouraged supporters to donate a “Newt gallon” of $2.50 to his campaign.
Yet, aside from “Newt gallons,” Gingrich’s grand underdog strategy to beat Romney and Obama also centers on a push for free Internet and social network buzz. At the rally, Gingrich called for attendees to spread word of “250” across the net, and asked for a show of hands for those with Twitter or Facebook accounts. But, considering the fact that buzz is not building for his 250 jingle as Gingrich trails Romney, Santorum, and Paul in Twitter mentions, any wins Gingrich musters in the South are unlikely to be due to his “250” internet campaign.
The two women I spoke to before the rally seemed satisfied, smiling as they left. We’ll find out tomorrow whether Gingrich’s efforts will translate into a win on Tuesday, but whether he can sustain a renewed surge remains to be seen.