10:30 A.M., EST
NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
OPERATOR: Welcome, and thank you for standing by. All participants will be able to listen only until the question-and-answer session of the call. At that time, to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone and record your name. Today’s conference is being recorded. If anyone has any objections, you may disconnect at this time.
Now I will turn the meeting over to Melissa Waheibi. Please begin.
MS. WAHEIBI: Good morning. Well, thank you, everyone. Thank you for calling in to this morning’s teleconference. We’ve been following the Republican race since the beginning, and today it’s Alabama and Mississippi’s turn. Hawaii also votes today, but it’s a little early for them to participate in a conference call, so we’re going to focus on the southern vote this morning.
I’m delighted to have on the line Mr. George Talbot, who’s the political editor from the Press Register Newspaper in Mobile, Alabama, and Dr. Marvin King, associate professor of Political Science and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi, affectionately called Ol’ Miss as well. They’re going to speak to you on the particulars of their state, and then we’ll open it up to questions and continue the conversation from there.
So we’ll start with comments from Mr. Talbot.
MR. TALBOT: Good morning. This is George, and I’m actually outside a precinct in Mobile this morning – been watching turnout, and we’re seeing a lot of traffic. There’s a lot of excitement in Alabama about this election today, more than usual, because Alabama and Mississippi are relevant. In prior elections, even four years ago, the election has either been pretty well decided or there’s just not been much attention paid to Alabama, so the fact that there is a lot of focus being paid to Alabama, that there’s a lot of buzz that the state could actually be a big player in this race today, has a lot of excitement down here. So that’s really interesting. That’s one storyline we’re watching.
Another is obviously you all see the same polls that we do. It appears to be wide open. It’s very competitive, and I think that’s been a little bit of a surprise for Mitt Romney and his supporters, who didn’t expect to do very well here. But clearly, they’re seeing something because they have stayed away from the state most of last week, but in the last few days they scheduled a bunch of events. I was with Romney yesterday morning in Mobile. So they’re seeing something that has them encouraged.
So that’s just kind of the latest from ground here. I’ll stop there.
MR. KING: Yeah, hello. This is Marvin King at the University of Mississippi. I’d like to echo George’s comments about voters here not used to getting this sort of attention. Generally, it’s long over by the time the voting comes around to Mississippi.
One thing that I’m looking forward to seeing is how much the endorsements by the Republican establishment will make a difference. We’ve seen Mississippi’s Governor Phil Bryant and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves both endorse Mitt Romney recently. And it’ll be interesting to see how much of a difference that makes.
I’m also interested in seeing if Mississippi voters will go with the favorite candidate or go with the quote, unquote, “more conservative candidate” in Rick Santorum. That’s what I would have expected two weeks ago. But as George said, Mitt Romney has made a recent charge here. And this does speak to the power of his money. So I’m interested in seeing how that plays out.
As far as Mississippi voters in particular, they are very social conservative. I like to tell people that they kind of wear their social conservatism on their sleeves; they don’t hide it. So in that sense, the voters here are similar to what you might see in Georgia or South Carolina. And of course, those states went for Gingrich, but those – I chalk that up more to the home field advantage.
So it’ll be interesting to see what happens, but part of me thinks that Republican voters here are really just most focused on selecting a nominee so that they can focus on defeating Obama. And I’ll end my comments there.
MS. WAHEIBI: Great. Well, thank you so much. Operator, if you want to give call-in instructions one more time?
OPERATOR: Thank you. If you would like to ask a question, please press *1, un-mute your line, and record your first and last name. Again, that’s *1 and record your name. One moment, please.
Our first question comes from Marta Torres. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hello, good morning. I would like to know besides beating Barack Obama which are the main issues for voters from Alabama and Mississippi. Thank you.
MS. WAHEIBI: George, we’ll start with you.
MR. TALBOT: She was asking about the issues in Mississippi?
MS. WAHEIBI: Yes, issues in both states. What are the issues that the candidates have been focusing on in your region?
MR. TALBOT: The economy. I mean, we’re no different than the rest of the country. Unemployment is high here. And the – one of the interesting trends that I’ve seen over the course of this week is that the three candidates came into Alabama and Mississippi really taking a lot of shots at each other, negative attacks on – between Romney and Santorum, and Gingrich and Santorum, and vice versa.
But over the course of the week, that’s really shifted, and as you’ve followed them around, they really stopped doing that and they all turned their focus on the President and with a message of: We’ve got to get him out, we’ve got to this economy turned around. They’ve all kind of pivoted. That’s been an interesting thing.
And I think that reflects something that Dr. King said. There is great desire for change in the White House in these states, and I think that these candidates have picked up on that. Now, there are lots of other little issues that have kind of popped up, but that’s really been the driving message.
MR. KING: Yeah, that’s right. Two things – I’d like to add that Gingrich has in the last week or so focused a lot more on energy, which would have some resonance here in Mississippi and in Alabama because they’re both Gulf coast states where there’s the belief that a lot of – there’s a lot of untapped energy in the Gulf coast and that because of burdensome regulations, the Obama Administration is hampering economic development in these two states and kind of hearkening back to the drill, baby, drill, or drill now, drill, whatever it was from the 2008 convention, and trying to get – trying to pass the idea long that Obama is stifling economic development kind of tied to energy. So we are seeing some of that.
But otherwise it is the economy. Mississippi’s unemployment rate is more than 10 percent, so we’re still well above the national average. And so there is some resonance there that the President has not done enough to fix the economy.
And – but again, the most important thing is campaigning against Obama. Republicans here kind of don’t really like – when I say – Republican voters don’t – are kind of squeamish when they see Republicans fighting each other. And so I think the candidates have picked up on that and recognized that it’s better to see who can bash Obama the best to have success.
MS. WAHEIBI: Great, thank you. We’ll move on to our next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Gulveda. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. What is exactly that the people of Alabama and Mississippi are looking for in the candidates? And it looks like the candidates are either picking on each other or criticizing President Obama instead of focusing on offering solutions to the problem of the people, the things that people want to see progress in their region.
And my other question is that, do they offer any solution and what is it that – one of the speakers defined the people of Alabama or Mississippi as social conservatives. What is social conservative – what does social conservative mean and what is it that they actually expect from the Republican candidates that they don’t see in the current Administration being delivered to them?
MS. WAHEIBI: Do either one of you have thoughts on that question?
MR. KING: Sure. I’ll take a stab at it first.
MS. WAHEIBI: Sure. Great.
MR. KING: Well, I think it’s important to remember how unpopular President Obama is here. It’s not like in some other states where he’s – where his favorability ratings are around 50 percent. Here they’re much higher. I believe in both Mississippi and Alabama he got somewhere between 8 and 12 percent, maybe 15 percent, of the white vote total. So his unpopularity is really high here.
So as far as social – as far as the social conservatism – and a disproportionate number of Republican voters in both of these states are socially conservative, but what they want is not someone who’s – as a Republican candidate, I think what they want is someone who’s not just saying that they’re pro-life, but one who will actually do something about pro-life issues, and same with same-sex marriage and defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which the President is not doing.
So I think there are some very specific issues that they would like to see more action on and not just passivity, which is one of the reasons why I’m kind of surprised that Mitt Romney is doing as well as he is here, given the fact that gay marriage happened in Massachusetts while he was governor there.
George, do you have anything?
MR. TALBOT: Yeah. I’d like to tell you that what I see as I watch these candidates do their stump speeches and – I’m telling you that the focus that they’re making is give me the chance because I’m the best guy who can beat Barack Obama. And they have – each have their reasons why they believe that. Each of them can make a slightly different case for that, but that’s the message they’re giving, and they’ve really kind of ceased the attacks on each other. Now, they do have their Super PACs and their surrogates who can do some of the negative, dirty work for them. And there’s plenty of that going on, for sure. But what you’re seeing them trying to connect with these voters in the deep South and saying, “I’m the guy who can beat Barack Obama and here’s why.”
And you mentioned about ideas. They do have some ideas they’re putting forward. It’s not that they’re just being totally negative and critical. I mean, you spend 10 minutes with Newt Gingrich and let me tell you, I mean, the ideas -- (laughter) – they come rolling off of him like you wouldn’t believe. I mean, he’s got ideas for – the main talking point that he’s giving right now as he goes around is about gasoline. “I’m going to get the price of gasoline down and here’s why.” He’s almost become kind of a one-issue guy with that. And this part of Alabama, Mobile, has the highest average gas prices in this – in Alabama, in this part of the world. So that’s a message that’s gotten some traction. But you really are seeing their aim turned on the White House and let me be the guy to go up against Barack Obama in the fall.
OPERATOR: Thank you once again. To ask a question, please press *1 and record your name.
Our next question is from Louise With. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. Thank you so much for your time. I actually have three short questions. The first one is the one you just touched upon, about the Super PAC money flowing in and how has that affected this campaign compared to earlier ones. The second one, who are the voters that vote in this primary, if you could give a little more description on who they are, race, money, social strata, that sort of thing. And third thing, about the oil spill in the Gulf. Does that have any relevance now? Are people talking about that? Is that an issue at all in the debate? Thank you.
MR. KING: You want to start on this one, George? And then I’ll --
MR. TALBOT: I was just going to tell you that I just checked on this. The Super PAC money, if you combine what Romney has spent in his campaign on ads spending and that the pro-Romney Super PAC has spent, it comes to more than $1.5 million in Alabama. I don’t have Mississippi right in front of me, but it’s comparable, a little less, but comparable. That is three times more than Gingrich or Santorum, who have each spent around 500,000, either with their campaign and with their Super PACs. So that gives you a kind of a feel. I mean, if you’re watching television down here, you’re going to see a Mitt Romney ad or a Romney Super PAC ad saying Santorum is bad or Gingrich is bad. So they’ve really blanketed the airwaves.
But, I wouldn’t say the guy who spends the most money is going to win. That – you can – there are plenty of examples from prior elections. Voters here I think really – they – it has an effect, but they – there’s a thing here called friends and neighbors kind of voting. They tend to kind of like to see the person. They like to vote for somebody who’s from their part of world or at least connects with them. That’s an old, sort of, tradition.
As far as the electorate in the primary – it’s – I don’t have the demographics. You could get those, I’m sure, pretty easily by searching for it. I do know that 80 percent of the voters today in the Alabama Republican Party identify themselves as Evangelicals or Baptist. So that’s a very strong segment of the vote that’s there and faith hasn’t been a dominant issue in this thing, but it is a factor for a lot of those voters.
The last thing on the oil spill – it is still important, particularly here where I am on the Gulf Coast. It has not been an issue that they have talked about a lot, except, as Dr. King mentioned, in terms of drilling. They all are saying we’re going to open up the Gulf for additional drilling. And people like that here. Despite the oil spill, drilling and the energy industry is a big part of the economy and they’re comfortable with it, and so that’s something that they see as a contrast with the current administration.
MR. KING: Yeah, that’s right. I’ll kind of go backwards here on the questions. As far as the oil spill goes, increased drilling for oil is generally popular. Support for environmental regulations in general is not as popular in this part of the country as it is in, say, the Pacific Northwest or New England. So there’s not as much indigenous effort to – well, you certainly have your environmental groups here. They’re just not as strong politically as energy and its related industries and the people who economically live off of energy. So there is just more support. And while the Gulf Coast oil spill was a tragedy, it’s not one where people are going to permanently turn away from it, like, say, with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, where Japan is now moving away from nuclear energy. You’re not likely to see that same reaction here. We’ll just kind of try to move on from it.
As far as the demographics, one thing about – and I can’t speak for Alabama, but I think this is true – is that the voters are older on average. A disproportionate number will be over 40 and over 50 than, say, you would see in a Democratic primary. And you’re also going to see slightly more male voters than female voters. So it tends to be an older, white, more male-dominated electorate in these elections, so that when you think about who they’re trying to appeal to, they’re trying to appeal to that average voter who’s maybe 45 to 65, white, socially conservative, male voter. That’s going to be the majority probably, or certainly a plurality of the electorate here.
And the one thing about the Super PACs is the Super PAC money is allowing Romney to kind of just swoop in somewhere where he hasn’t been campaigning, hasn’t expected to win, and enable him to put in a very large buy and kind of push the numbers in such a position that maybe it is more competitive for him. And again, he’s probably not expecting to win Mississippi or Alabama, but he is expecting – or he would – if he can even just split the delegates with Santorum and Gingrich, he comes out ahead, because these are the states that, really, Santorum and Gingrich should be winning. And if they can’t score a clear victory here, even in defeat, it’s a moral victory, I suppose, for Romney. And I think the Super PAC money really allows him to do that.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Zoltan Mikes. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, I’m Zoltan Mikes from World Business Press Online news agency, and my question is regarding of Newt Gingrich. And the question is: How much can he (inaudible) as a southern conservative when he is living in McLean? And do the voters (inaudible) his game, or do they know or do they believe him, if southern roots so much, like he is stating then?
And the second one is: Do you think that Newt Gingrich needs to win both primaries in order to stay in the race, or one would be enough, or how do you see his chances if he doesn’t win any of them? Thank you very much.
MR. KING: The thing about Newt being a southern conservative, his record is as a southern conservative from 1977 or ’79 all the way. For 20 years, he represented Georgia. And so while he might live in Virginia, the D.C. area, and while he may have been raised in Pennsylvania, I don’t think that’s a problem, really, for Mississippi voters. The former governor here, Haley Barbour, spent the bulk of his working career in D.C. as a lobbyist, but then he came back and campaigned as a southern conservative and he was able to win. So I think people won’t hold that against them as long as they believe that your intentions are true. So I don’t think they’ll hold that against him.
As far as whether or not he needs to win these states, by all objective accounts he needs to win, but I’m not sure that that will affect Gingrich’s thinking. So --
MR. TALBOT: All right. Yeah, Gingrich, in his speeches, I mean, he definitely plays that up. He has a funny line about grits. Maybe you all saw where Mitt Romney kind of made a clumsy mistake when he said he had had some cheesy grits for breakfast the other day. And nobody down here calls it cheesy grits. It was kind of a goof. And so Gingrich is having a little bit of sport with him about that. When he goes around, he tells a joke and he says, “Unlike one of my competitors, I’ve actually had grits before.” And that usually gets a pretty good laugh. He’s a big guy, so when he says he’s probably had grits, you believe him.
But he also – he says if you don’t understand grits, you probably don’t understand the South, and you see people nodding. I mean, he’s definitely making that appeal, and I would definitely say he has got the most riding on this thing today. He has put a heavy, heavy emphasis on these two states, particularly Alabama. He has been here every day since Super Tuesday, often doing multiple events from one end of the state to the other. He’s got his wife here, he’s got surrogates here doing events for him. He’s putting everything on the table here, and if he doesn’t win, I think that’s a huge problem for him.
Now he insists he’s going to stay in this thing until June, he’s not going to quit no matter what. But a loss here today, if he doesn’t win, if he doesn’t come in first place, is a problem. On the other side, Romney, if he’s just competitive, and it looks like he’s going to be competitive, what an achievement that is for him, because now, going forward, he can say, look, I can win conservative voters; look what I did; I was competitive in these southern states. So that’s a real interesting dynamic today.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: There are no further questions at this time.
MS. WAHEIBI: Great. We’ll leave the line open for a minute or two just to see if anybody else has any other questions before we close the call.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Again, to ask a question, please press *1 and record your name.
MS. WAHEIBI: Well, gentlemen, it seems that everyone has had their questions answered, unless you had any last-minute remarks. We look forward to seeing the results of your state this evening.
MR. TALBOT: Very good.
MR. KING: Very good. Thank you.
MS. WAHEIBI: Great. Thank you so much for your time and thank you, everyone, for participating. A transcript will be available as soon as it’s finished. Thank you so much.
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