For at least two days last week, Mobile was the center of the political universe. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and his traveling road show descended upon Alabama for an unprecedented political rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

But Trump isn’t the only one in a crowded field of 17 Republican candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination, making stops in Alabama months before the state’s primary Tuesday, March 1. Six are visiting the Yellowhammer State over a 10-day period this month, including Trump, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

It’s not the only time in recent years the spotlight has been aimed directly at the Heart of Dixie. For a few weeks in 2013, the nation watched as Alabama’s first congressional district held a special election to fill the open seat vacated by Rep. Jo Bonner. In March 2012, then-Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich battled it out for the lion’s share of the state’s 50 Republican delegates.

During both of those occasions, national pundits told Alabamians to enjoy the exposure because it wasn’t likely to happen again. 

They were wrong.

Alabama has been a stopping place for presidential candidates of all stripes over the past decade. Democratic presidential hopefuls traditionally make the March 7 anniversary of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma a campaign stop. In 2007, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton participated in the day’s events before officially announcing their presidential candidacies.

(Lagniappe/Gabriel Tynes) Real estate developer and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Ladd Peebles Stadium in Mobile Aug. 21.

(Lagniappe/Gabriel Tynes) Real estate developer and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Ladd Peebles Stadium in Mobile Aug. 21.


Never before, however, have there been this many candidates of the same party with close and — at times — competing events within the state’s borders.

What’s so special about this cycle?

There are a few things. With so many candidates, it’s more likely several would spend time in the state. But this year Alabama is strategically positioned on the primary calendar and offers a geographical advantage.

“Alabama is one of the reddest states in the nation,” Alabama Republican Party chairwoman Terry Lathan explained in an email to Lagniappe about the focus on the state. “Candidates come here because they are trying to earn our trust and votes. 2008 and 2012 saw candidate foot traffic in our boundaries. In 2012, the candidates were everywhere we turned because only Mississippi and Alabama had primaries on one day [other than Hawaii]. Therefore, the logistics made it easy for them to stay around us for a while.”

According to Lathan, the March 1 “SEC” primary day, which will also include the other Southern states of Arkansas, Georgia, Texas and Tennessee, makes it difficult for a serious candidate to ignore the South.

“That puts a target on Alabama as a destination,” she explained. “It’s only August and we’ve already seen Sen. Rick Santorum, Sen. Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Gov. Scott Walker, Gov. John Kasich and later this week Gov. Jeb Bush stepping into Alabama. This is not an accident. It’s a message. They want to earn our votes.”

Although Alabama is not one of the traditional early four primaries of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, it could give poll watchers a real glimpse of which candidate traditionally Republican voters see as passing muster with former National Review editor William F. Buckley’s rule: “the rightwardmost viable candidate.” Viable, of course, being the keyword.

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, offered Lagniappe an analysis of Alabama’s Republican electorate based on exit polling data from prior elections.

According to Kondik, three-quarters of the Alabama Republican electorate in 2012 described themselves as “white evangelicals,” a very high percentage compared to all the other states in the union. That makeup offers some clues as to which candidate would do well in the state’s Republican presidential primary.

“Alabama’s electorate on March 1 is probably going to be inclined to support a candidate who is not the so-called establishment candidate,” Kondik explained. “One would expect maybe Ted Cruz to do better there than Jeb Bush, at least at this point, just because evangelical voters are just generally closer to the outsider forces in the party than the insider forces, at least in the last few elections.”

However, there are few variables that could make Alabama a more difficult contest to pick. Since the state has an early primary date, even if some of the candidates drop out, their names could still be on the ballot, adding an extra wrinkle to final tally of the March 1 primary. 

“Alabama is going to have a pretty conservative evangelical electorate, and one would expect the candidate that maybe emerges from the group most supported by evangelicals to do well in Alabama,” Kondik said. “What might happen is that if Huckabee, Cruz, Santorum, Perry — a lot of these other folks are on the ballot in Alabama and there are fewer so-called establishment candidates — then maybe the evangelical [vote] gets split many different ways, and if someone emerges among the quarter of the electorate that is non-evangelical, then maybe that person could win the state. That’s sometimes what happens.”

It would be something akin to a circular firing squad created as the most conservative candidates attack one another for Alabama’s nod. The byproduct could be a split in the state’s dominant evangelical vote. 

Enter Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.

In a surprise move last week, Bentley endorsed his gubernatorial colleague John Kasich for the Republican presidential nomination, particularly citing Kasich’s focus on the military.

“With his record as governor and his two decades on the House Armed Services Committee working with leaders like President Reagan to strengthen our military, end the Cold War and revamp the Pentagon, John Kasich is a leader whose readiness to lead our nation on his first day in the Oval Office is unmatched. America needs John Kasich, and I am going to do everything I can to help make sure he is our next president,” Bentley said in a statement provided by the Kasich campaign.

Kasich isn’t someone you expect traditional Alabama Republican voters to rally behind. The endorsement was a curious one for a lot of political watchers.
 
But what if that single gesture of support from Bentley, who vows “to do everything,” is enough to make Kasich the choice of Alabama’s non-evangelicals? Could Kasich steal a win in Alabama? 

Stranger things have happened, like Bentley’s unlikely path to his party’s nomination in his gubernatorial bid in 2010 in defeating now-U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne in a runoff election that saw help from the Alabama Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union.

So while the state is decidedly more right-of-center, there is an opening for a more moderate so-called Republican establishment to win the state.

That could also be what inspired former Gov. Bob Riley to offer his endorsement earlier this week to his former colleague Jeb Bush. Riley and Bush had governorships that overlapped and given Riley’s network within the state, there could be two brackets within the state during this primary contest. 

One would be among the group of conservative candidates including Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum and Perry and the other between Kasich and Bush, both touting endorsements from the state’s last two governors, both of whom are viewed favorably by Alabamians.

Kondik said once next year’s Feb. 20 South Carolina primary is over, Alabamians should expect a flurry of activity from the candidates.

“It’s not a delegate-rich state, necessarily,” he noted. “It is early enough in the process that it, along with the other SEC states — some of the states that vote that day, it’s going to be a big day. Alabama is part of that so I’m sure the state will get some attention, particularly after South Carolina, you’ll see the candidates coming through.”

Unless in the unlikely event a candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes in Alabama’s Republican primary, the state’s delegates will be awarded proportionately. 

Therefore, even if a candidate doesn’t come out at the head of the pack in Alabama, it will better position them for larger, winner-take-all contests in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Alabama’s neighbor, Florida, on March 15.

“That’ll be the time when candidates fall by the wayside … unless four different candidates win those four different states, which is not crazy to think might happen,” Kondik explained.

As far as last week’s man of the hour Donald Trump is concerned, Kondik said it was a possibility that Trump may not even be on the ballot in Alabama come March 1.

“I think we need to be humble in looking at this because it’s a — it’s truly unprecedented — a guy who has made a splash like this, who is more of a celebrity than a politician,” he said. “I do think he’ll burn out at some point. If you were asking me to wager whether Trump would be on the ballot in Alabama or not, I think it would be hard to make a prediction one way or the other. I think it’s just as likely he is out of the race by [then], as opposed to him being around and being as dominant a force in the race as he is now.”

At last week’s Trump event, there were people collecting signatures on his behalf, which will be needed if he is serious about contending for Alabama. According to Lathan, those signatures are part of a procedure Trump and his 13 other opponents will have to go through to get on the ballot.

“The ALGOP just passed our Presidential Preference Primary resolution and candidate qualifying process,” she said. “A presidential candidate must sign a qualifying form with a filing fee of $10,000. They must also have a petition with 500 names of Alabama voters, or 50 [names] per each Congressional district [350 total].”

Lathan told Lagniappe she has received interest from presidential campaigns and has seen signs the candidates are taking this particular contest seriously.

“The ALGOP has been contacted by multiple presidential campaigns requesting this information. We believe we will see many qualify to obtain ballot access in our primary. Also, we have started a call-in series for the candidates named ‘Calling Alabama’ that allows a half-hour conference call with ALGOP members and activists. We have heard from four candidates already [Fiorina, Carson, Cruz, Bush] and others are contacting me to get on the call with Alabama GOP voters. That’s a healthy sign of our importance to them.”

That was a sentiment echoed by Republican strategist and pollster Kellyanne Conway, the president and CEO of the polling company inc./WomanTrend. 

“If Republican candidates for president are spending more time in Alabama than usual, then enjoy the love — and give them plaudits for recognizing that the road to the nomination in 2016 may very well run through the South,” Conway said to Lagniappe. “After the ‘big three,’ the calendar moves very quickly, and most conservative candidates have March 1 circled on theirs.”

Conway sees the primary election in Alabama as a litmus test for conservatives. She pointed to Alabama as a place where a conservative candidate wouldn’t necessarily have to lean toward moderate to win the electorate because conservative positions are appreciated by the voters. That lends itself to create a true contest of ideas between each of the candidates.

“Alabama is one of the last comfortable places for conservatives who abhor government overreach and value self-governance,” Conway explained. “Alabama dealt with Obamacare and illegal immigration on its own. It rejected Common Core. Freedom of religion — and conscience — flourishes. Wise candidates might be less concerned with swing states than with swinging through states of concerned men and women starving for leadership.”

Another potential reason the state is important is that there could be a spillover effect into other states with primary contests held on the same day as Alabama or shortly thereafter. Alabama is home to five television media markets: Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, Dothan and Mobile. Huntsville’s and Mobile’s markets include parts of the neighboring states of Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi. 

Mobile’s market in particular includes three significantly populated counties in Florida: Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa. 

While those three counties are just a drop in the bucket of a state that includes the major media markets of Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville, that part of Florida is still very solidly Republican and is likely to have more Republican voters proportionately than any other major population center in the state. Thus, there is an added incentive for a candidate like Donald Trump to come to Mobile and get the local media exposure.

All this attention from the Republican field is not just a coincidence, and Alabama is a state that really is up for grabs.

According to a WRKG/Strategy Research Poll put out last week, Trump owns a commanding lead with 30 percent of registered Alabama Republican voters, giving him the nod in the crowded field. If Trump winds up bowing out of the contest as some expect, then things could get really interesting. After Trump, there is a bottleneck with Bush at 15 percent, Carson and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tied at third with 11 percent, Huckabee and Fiorina with 8 percent, Cruz with 7 percent and Walker at 3 percent.

If Trump were to bow out before March 1, then it’s anyone’s guess who his 30 percent will line up behind. 

With that unpredictability as a possibility, Alabama could have a front-row seat for a primary contest for the ages.

Buckle up, because this is only the beginning.