On Aug. 3, 1980 then GOP Presidential contender Ronald Reagan picked his campaign starting point and his audience deliberately. The spot was the Neshoba County Fair, near Meridian Mississippi. The virtually white, wildly enthusiastic throng that lined Reagan's motorcade route waved Confederate and American flags. Reagan didn't disappoint them. He punched all the familiar code attack themes, big government, liberals, welfare, and law and order. He punctuated his blast with the ringing declaration, "I believe in states' rights."
Three decades later GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney with his freshly minted VP pick Paul Ryan in tow picked their joint campaign starting point and their audience just as deliberately. His spot was a retired battleship draped in red, white and blue docked in Norfolk, Va. The virtually white audience cheered as Romney and Ryan punched the same familiar code themes, out of control. Spendthrift, bloated government. They punctuated it with the hard vow to take back America.
Romney and Ryan can't openly espouse states' rights as Reagan did. But they update the code themes by lambasting Democrats, wasteful big government, runaway deficit spending on entitlement programs, and their full blown assaults on so-called Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security programs, and labor unions. The major recipients of these programs are and have always been white seniors, retirees, women, and children, and white workers. But these programs have been artfully sold to many Americans as handouts to lazy, undeserving blacks, Hispanics and minorities.
Romney and Ryan, like Reagan, rip a page directly from the time tested Southern Strategy playbook of Richard Nixon for GOP presidential candidates. The strategy has always had two prongs. One is to toss out wink and nod racial code word shots at liberals, bloated, overbearing big government, and tax and spend Democrats.
The second is to firmly lock down the majority popular and electoral vote in the 11 old Confederate and border states. Without all or most of these states electoral votes, GOP presidential challengers Nixon, Reagan, and now Romney-Ryan would have had an even steeper climb to defeat the LBJ surrogate Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Carter in 1980, and now President Obama. These states hold more than than one-third of the electoral votes needed to bag the White House.
Romney's blunt revival of the Southern Strategy bluntly recognizes two realities. He will get a negligible percentage of the black vote, and only a slightly higher percentage of the Latino vote. Despite much talk, and even some delusional thinking, that the white conservative vote has shrunk to the point of being marginalized, it isn't. Whites make up three quarters of America's electorate. That's a drop of slightly more than 10 percent from what they represented in the 1980 presidential election. These numbers belie another stark political reality and that's that in every election since Nixon's win in 1968 whites have voted consistently by either sizeable or comfortable margins for GOP presidential candidates.
Whites favored Reagan in 1984 by a 64-35 margin. They favored George Bush Sr. in 1988 by a 59-40 margin. Even when Democratic incumbents have won reelection by landslide margins as in Clinton's reelection win in 1996, GOP Presidential contender Bob Dole still edged Clinton out with white voters. He walloped Clinton by a double digit margin of white conservative protestant voters.
The final presidential tally in 2008 gave ample warning of the potency of the GOP's conservative white constituency. Obama made a major breakthrough by winning a significant percent of votes from white independents and young white voters. Among Southern and Heartland America white male voters, Obama made almost no impact. In South Carolina and other Deep South states the vote was even more lopsided among white voters against Obama. The only thing that even made Obama's showing respectable in those states was the record turnout and percentage of black votes that he got. They were all Democratic votes. GOP presidential rival John McCain would not have been as competitive as he was during campaign 2008 without the bail out from white voters. He bagged a comfortable margin of 55-43 over Obama. Polls show that the number of whites that back Obama is much less today. All show him winning less than 40 percent of that vote.
Romney's Southern Strategy is anchored in another political reality. He can and has successfully grabbed the majority of conservative white voters. In each of his 2012 GOP primary wins, he got two-thirds of those that self-labeled themselves "strongly conservative" or "somewhat conservative." Ryan will not only fatten the percentage of conservative voters for Romney, it will fatten their numbers as well. This is not speculation. He's already bumped up the Romney percentage in some polls by a notch. Romney had badly slipped in those polls before the Ryan pick. This is no surprise for another reason. Elections are usually won by candidates with a solid and impassioned core of bloc voters. White males, particularly older white males, vote consistently and faithfully. And they vote in a far greater percentage than Hispanics and blacks.
Romney, then, crunched the voter numbers and the stats and those numbers have shown that his only path to the White House is getting an overwhelming number of white voters in the South, the Heartland States, and the swing states. Romney's neo-Southern Strategy with Ryan as point man is simply a repeat of what GOP presidential candidates have routinely done for the past five decades.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.