Lyndon B. Johnson made history twice in his trounce of GOP presidential rival Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. The first time he made history was when he won a greater percent of the popular vote than any other presidential winner in more than a century. He scored nearly 500 electoral votes and carried every state except six. This was the second time he made history with that election. It was the five of the six states that he didn’t carry that tells much about how the South became the white South again. Five of the six states Johnson lost were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Johnson himself explained why in his now famous quip that in ramming through the 1964 civil rights act the Democrats had “lost the South for a generation.” Johnson’s prescient remark wasn’t totally accurate. It has been more like two going on three generations since white Democrats lost their stranglehold on the South.
Republican congressman Bill Cassidy’s oust of four term Democratic senator Mary Landrieu in Louisiana put the capper on the white Southern flip flop from Democrat to GOP. Cassidy even found the words to punctuate it when he declared that his victory put “the exclamation point” on the GOP’s total dominance in the South. There are no white Democratic senators, governors in the South and white GOP representatives control every Southern and nearly every Border state legislature.
The stock explanation for the white South’s political cart wheel is race. Whites, nearly all of whom were staunch Democrats before 1964, were so mad at Johnson and the Democrats for championing civil rights and voting rights that they were ripe for the GOP pickings. An astute Richard Nixon quickly picked up on this in 1968 with his Southern Strategy which meant say little and do less about civil rights in the South.
An even more astute Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 campaign presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, near Meridian Mississippi, which was a stone’s throw from where the three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Reagan nakedly pandered to the not so latent white racial hostility when he told a virtually lily-white, wildly enthusiastic throng at the Fair, “I believe in states’ rights.” In the 1980s, GOP political guru Lee Atwater kicked race baiting into even higher gear dangling a generous blend of vicious anti-black stereotypes, code words, phrases, and outright naked racial pitches that played on white racial fears. The GOP strategy firmly locked down the majority popular and electoral vote in the 11 old Confederate and Border states. These states hold more than one-third of the electoral votes needed to bag the White House.
But apart from race there’s another explanation for the GOP’s white Southern lock that’s every bit as compelling. Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan never once uttered the word race in their campaign pitches to Southern whites. They took another tack. In his Mississippi speech Reagan punched all the familiar code attack themes, big government, liberals, welfare, and law and order. The template was set for reshaping the white Southern political dynamic. Fast forward three decades, in 2012 GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney and VP running mate Paul Ryan picked their joint campaign starting point and their audience just as deliberately as Reagan. This time it was a battleship draped in red, white and blue docked in Norfolk, Virginia. The virtually lily-white audience cheered as Romney and Ryan punched the same familiar code themes: out of control spend thrift, bloated government. They punctuated it with the hard vow to take back America.
Romney and Ryan didn’t openly espouse state’s rights as Reagan did. Instead they updated the code themes by lambasting Democrats, wasteful big government, run-away deficit spending on entitlement programs, and their full-blown assaults on the so-called Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security programs, and labor unions. The majority of the recipients of these programs 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.
The final presidential tally in 2008 and 2012 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.
Landrieu, as every other white Democratic in the South, lost her senate reelection bid in part because of race but in part also because Obama, as other Democratic presidential candidate since Nixon’s win in 1968, has been sold to white Southerners as the epitome of evil, big government. This is what made the white South the white South again and the brutal reality is that it’s going to stay that way for a long time.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is 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 host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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