The Santorum Vote: Primary as Postlude

Civil War divisions are still there, in the numbers—you just have to look harder

It's the curse of my trade. Whenever an honest reporter makes an observation, he runs the risk of becoming an instant liar. In my cover story a couple of weeks ago, I remarked that thanks to Tennessee's newfound political homogeneity, with almost all of the state voting Republican, candidates had lost interest in coming to Knoxville. The day I filed that story, after all, it had been eight years since a major presidential candidate, or his running mate, made a whistle-stop here. There hadn't been a period that long since the days when campaigning was done by coal-fired passenger train.

Naturally, during the week that story was on the stands, we got visits from all three Republican front runners. To be fair to me, only one of them spoke in Knoxville proper. And it'll be surprising if we see any of them again. Whoever wins the Republican nomination will get Tennessee's electors, and he won't feel obliged to whip up any crowds here.

And my expectation, comparing the 2012 primary with the 2008 primary, that the business-minded Romney would carry much of traditional-Republican East Tennessee, while charismatic social-conservative Santorum swept the Nouveau Republican parts of the state, was off the mark, too. Santorum carried almost all of East Tennessee, even Knox County, albeit by a hair's breadth of less than 1 percent.

He was the choice of certain Democrats I know, who jumped the fence and voted Santorum, just because they think he's the one least likely to prevail in November. Considering he won Knox County by only 370 votes, maybe cynical Democrats made the difference here, if not statewide.

I watched the returns carefully, just because I'm curious about historical resonance. Since the Civil War, East Tennessee has voted differently from the rest of the state. Even within Tennessee's newfound red-state status are echoes of old divisions.

The traditionally Republican section of the state, the part that's been Republican since Reconstruction, hasn't been the most "conservative," at least not as defined in the red-state era. In the primary, traditionally Republican East Tennessee has previously opted for the moderate Republican candidate—like McCain over Huckabee, in 2008. In an interview with the New Yorker just before the election, Knoxville state Representative Bill Dunn, a Santorum supporter, stated, "East Tennessee is strongly Republican. It goes back to Civil War times. But I think a lot of those people are Republican because their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers were Republican. As you start heading west across the state, you see more Republicans who have made a conscious decision to be Republican because they agree with the platform."

The parts of Tennessee that until the late 20th century voted Democratic have lately favored the more idealistic Republican, the social conservative. Nouveau Republicans like neoconservatives.

On maps of last Tuesday's vote, Loudon County went for Romney, and might seem the last vestige of East Tennessee's old political distinctiveness. But if you look deeper, the numbers make Dunn's description of Tennessee getting redder westward sound credible. In many rural West Tennessee counties, the ostensibly more conservative Santorum swamped the ostensibly more moderate Romney by more than two to one. Even in Memphis's Shelby County, it wasn't close. The margin was pretty wide in most rural Middle Tennessee counties, too. The Romney-Santorum split was much closer in East Tennessee. Knox County was one of Tennessee's closest counties, but even closer was Sullivan County in Upper East Tennessee, where a scant 31 votes separated the two candidates. If the statewide Santorum tide had been about 10 percent shallower, he still would have won Tennessee handily—but several East Tennessee Counties, including Loudon, Knox, Sullivan, and Blount Counties, and Chattanooga's Hamilton County, would have stood out as an archipelago of Romneyism. Whatever that is.

Maybe my premise that Romney's the traditional moderate Republican is naive to begin with. Romney's a Mormon, and many Southerners aren't quite sure what that is. I'd bet most East Tennesseans, Republican and not, have never even met an actual Mormon in person, give or take a doorstep surprise.

Also, Romney may be the first Republican front runner in history with a hairdo. Dewey was a bit of a dandy, back in the '40s, but most Republicans since then have groomed themselves like undertakers. If they're not bald, they've kept their hair plastered down as if they wished they were. They saved money on haircuts the way they promised to save money on entitlements. The stalwart old East Tennessee Republican may look at Romney and see a Kennedy-Carter-Clinton blow-dry.

In any case, a lot of people who voted in 2008 found it tempting to stay home this month, leaving it open for the people who felt obliged to vote, many of them propelled by crypto-religious exhortations.

But I'm fascinated by the paradox of Dunn's remark, that the new Republicans, those from families who used to vote Democratic—are now regarded to be more conservative than East Tennessee's Republican old guard. In most presidential elections of the 20th century, Middle and West Tennessee chose the candidate more liberal than East Tennessee's favorite. The new Republicans, who grew up in Democratic families who a few decades ago were cheering candidates who were a few notches left of Obama, are now the vanguard of social conservatism.

Maybe the tags "liberal" and "conservative," terms that change meaning every generation or two, just confuse the issue—maybe the message is secondary to the messenger, and his style. What prevails in the South, consistently, is populism: emotional issues proclaimed as if from a pulpit, with no room for grays. A century ago, dollars-and-sense Republicans were perplexed about how William Jennings Bryan made it work. Back then, the Democratic Party held the patent on populism. Before Reagan, Republicans never whipped crowds into frenzies. If they had, no one would have guessed they were Republicans. (We'll except Teddy Roosevelt, who eventually decided he wasn't a Republican.)

But now the Populism shoe is on the Republican foot. Even those Republicans who complain it doesn't fit are loath to remove it.