Will 2016 Be the Last Hurrah for the Southern Strategy?

In this year’s presidential politics, all eyes are on Georgia. This, of course, is because recent polling indicates the Peach State might be ready to elect its first Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992. For many, the reason appears obvious. Georgia’s growing minority population, which the conventional wisdom states will vote Democratic, is growing, and with more and more voters of color, it’s just a matter of time before demography becomes destiny, and like North Carolina and Virginia, the state turns purple on its way to turning true blue.

And that may eventually happen, but many didn’t think that 2016 would be the year, and that 2020 might be a more reasonable timeframe. If that’s the case, then why is Hillary so competitive? In a New York Times op-ed this morning, Joseph Crespino provides an alternative hypothesis that doesn’t rely on the racial makeup of Peach State voters.

Crespino, who is a Professor of History at Emory University, posits that the reason Clinton is competitive is due to a more than 50 year old split in the party that still exists today. Historically, the southern Republicans of Eisenhower’s day were businessmen trying to create the new south. Remember also that blacks had affiliated with the Republican Party since reconstruction. With the impending passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 the Dixiecrats were becoming Republicans, and Crespino describes the 1964 Georgia GOP convention in which the segregationists carried the day in nominating Barry Goldwater.

Although Goldwater didn’t win, the events of 1964 paved the way for the Southern Strategy used at some level by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. In its characterization of Latinos and Muslims, along with its appeal to racialists, the Trump campaign has carried the Southern Strategy to a new level.

Yet this year that mixture may not work. Mr. Trump’s extreme language and divisive policies are alienating moderate Republicans in places like the Atlanta exurbs — where Mrs. Clinton is running nearly even with Mr. Trump. And across the state, polls show a significantly low number of Republicans saying they’ll support their party’s candidate.

Mr. Trump’s campaign most closely resembles the presidential campaigns of George C. Wallace, the arch-segregationist Alabama governor. Indeed, Wallace’s legacy is telling. An economic progressive, he remained a Democrat his entire life. True, he galvanized white working-class disenchantment and pioneered a populist, anti-liberal rhetoric that Ronald Reagan and subsequent Republicans would use to devastating effect. Yet he never had much appeal among the new class of suburban whites; the two were like oil and water. So, too, it would seem, are Donald Trump and moderate Southern Republicans today.

Over the weekend, Greg Bluestein of the AJC published a story illustrating how Republican elected officials and some GOP voters are unwilling to support Donald Trump. This morning, State Rep. Allen Peake of Macon was quoted as saying, “The reality is that Donald Trump as our nominee makes me incredibly fearful for the future of our party. We have alienated Hispanics and African-Americans, both groups who would support us if we stuck to an agenda focused on jobs and the economy.”

Should Hillary Clinton win Georgia in November, the vote will be analyzed to see if it was increased minority voting strength, moderate Republican opposition to Trump, or both, that put the state in the Democrats column. And how the state and national parties react to such a loss, in Georgia or nationally, will determine whether the Southern Strategy has finally become a bigger hindrance than a help to the Republican Party.


Add a Comment