Divining the Demographic Terrain in Mississippi, Alabama Primaries

BY Dante Chinni  March 13, 2012 at 11:00 AM EST

Former Gov. Mitt Romney Campaigning in Alabama

Mitt Romney speaks with comedian Jeff Foxworthy following a campaign appearance at the Whistle Stop cafe on Monday in Mobile, Ala. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

At first glance, the polls leading into the next set of Republican primaries — a less “super” set of four primaries and caucuses on Tuesday — look a bit baffling, and that’s particularly true for Mississippi and Alabama.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is challenging in both states and that seems difficult for some to believe. After all, Romney has struggled with lower-income voters and more evangelicals. The answer lies in those states’ makeup.

While it may be tempting to simply think of Mississippi and Alabama as two states in the Deep South, that misses a lot of the subtle — and not-so-subtle — differences in them. Those differences are magnified by this GOP presidential field and they can be better understood using Patchwork Nation’s] geographic/demographic breakdown of county types.

ALABAMA’S MORE COMPLICATED MAP

Of the two neighboring Southern states, Alabama has a more diverse and balanced map than Mississippi. Look at the map below and you’ll see something of an even distribution between the yellow Evangelical Epicenter counties, which hold 1.5 million people, and the orange Minority Central counties, which hold 1.7 million.

That difference may prove critical on Tuesday.

Thus far in the nominating contests, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has drawn strength from the Evangelical Epicenters. He carried those counties on Super Tuesday in Ohio, Tennessee and Oklahoma and has won them in many of the earlier contests as well.

Santorum’s conservative Catholicism — against abortion in all cases, against contraception — and his outsider appeals against Washington “elites” seem to be resonating with the voters who live in the Evangelical Epicenters and that should help in those 29 counties in Alabama.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, has won the Minority Central counties, which hold large black populations, in states where he has seriously competed — South Carolina, Florida and Georgia. Those places too have an Evangelical bent, but often also have higher racial and socioeconomic tensions. Gingrich’s comments about an entitlement society and labeling President Obama the “food stamp president” may be resonating with Republican voters there.

Gingrich’s relative home-field advantage in the Alabama Minority Central counties plus Santorum’s strength in the Epicenters could end up splitting the vote in key conservative communities and allow Romney to pick up the pieces elsewhere — Alabama’s counties that fall into the Monied Burbs, Boom Towns, Campus and Careers and Military Bastion categories. There are 1.5 million people who live in those counties.

Bearing all that in mind, the current polls that essentially show a three-way split are not surprising. One key point to bear in mind for Tuesday, however, is those county types that favor Gingrich and Santorum also tend to have higher Republican registrations.

TWO MISSISSIPPIS

The polling in Mississippi has been less thorough, but the numbers seem to indicate more of a two-way battle between Gingrich and Romney, with Santorum generally trailing.

Again, this may have more than a little to do with the counties that make up that state — it is to the left on the map of the area above. About 1.2 million live in the state’s Minority Central counties and 1.1 million live in the Boom Towns. That’s 2.3 million of the state’s 2.9 million in population, with the Evangelical Epicenters holding a 450,000 and the rest of the population split between the Monied Burbs, and Military Bastions.

But it’s in that main split between the Minority Central and Boom Town counties that you may see a tension play out between old Mississippi and new Mississippi — literally “new” in the case of the Boom Towns. Many of those Boom Towns have seen very rapid growth in the last 10 years – 42 percent growth in Lamar County, 27 percent growth in Madison County, 22 percent growth in Rankin County.

And if previous nomination contests are a valid measure the Boom Towns could be good territory for Romney. He’s won those Boom Town counties even in states he’s lost like Iowa and Colorado.

Why might the Boom Towns be good for Romney in Mississippi? Those counties on the whole are wealthier than average and many have struggled through the housing crunch — the downside of being part of the boom. All of that means they may be less focused on cultural issues and more focused on the economy, Romney’s strongest suit.

None of this is certain, of course. State polling can be notoriously unreliable and in both Mississippi and Alabama the question may ultimately turn on who comes out to vote on Tuesday, which is impossible to know. But looking at the states this way shows that even in the Deep South, the electoral terrain is more complicated than we often acknowledge and some of those big surprises people see in Mississippi and Alabama may not be so big after all.

And while Tuesday will offer little indication of what will happen this fall — there is no doubt that Alabama and Mississippi will go Republican in November — it may offer a sense of how even the deepest Republican reds can of a slightly different shade.