Friday, March 5

Why Isn’t the ‘Southern Strategy’ Working?

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The so-called Southern strategy — appealing to white voters by focusing on racial issues — has worked very well for the Republican Party. It has helped the party persuade many frustrated white working-class voters that the Democratic Party doesn’t care about them.

Richard Nixon’s campaign invented the strategy, and he won the presidency twice. Ronald Reagan praised “states’ rights” in a tiny Mississippi county known for a Ku Klux Klan triple murder. George H.W. Bush ran the notorious Willie Horton advertisement. The Southern strategy has been “the most successful strategy in the history of modern politics,” Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist, told me.

The basic bet has been that Republicans win when voters focus on race. Steve Bannon, who helped run President Trump’s campaign, described the flip side of the idea, in 2017: “The Democrats,” Bannon said, “I want them to talk about racism every day.”

Sure enough, Trump has put race at the center of his re-election message. He did so in two aggressive speeches over the weekend and defended the Confederate flag yesterday. “Almost every day in the last two weeks, Mr. Trump has sought to stoke white fear and resentment,” Maggie Haberman writes. (She’s also on today’s episode of The Daily.)

And yet this time seems different: The strategy isn’t working. Trump’s poll numbers are slumping, and some of his 2016 supporters cite racial issues as a reason they plan to vote for Joe Biden.

Why is the Southern strategy suddenly flailing? I count four main reasons:

  • The country is changing. It becomes more racially diverse each year. And most Americans under age 35 are quite liberal. The horror of the George Floyd video and the ensuing protest movement have also changed the minds of many Americans.

  • People are afraid. Historically, many white Americans didn’t see how racism hurt them, Belcher said. But he now hears white voters in focus groups say they’re worried that the country is coming apart. “They talk about, if we continue on this trajectory, it’s going to be dismal for our kids,” he said.

  • Trump has gone too far. Most white Americans remain moderate to conservative on immigration, affirmative action and more. But many also believe police departments are biased, and many don’t like symbols of slavery. Reagan offered an optimistic, patriotic message that let many voters downplay or overlook his racial appeals. Trump is practically forcing voters to take sides on racism, Terrance Woodbury, another Democratic strategist, told CNN’s Ron Brownstein.

  • Voters are simply too unhappy with Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. “As long as that’s true,” The Times’s Nate Cohn told me, “I don’t see how he has the freedom to employ wedge issues.”

Of course, the usual caveat applies: The campaign still has four months left.

For more: FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone has written a brief history of how the Republican Party “spent decades making itself white.” And The Times’s Emily Cochrane reports from Maine on Senator Susan Collins’s effort to win re-election despite Trump’s unpopularity there.

In a unanimous Supreme Court decision yesterday — holding that members of the Electoral College cannot vote for whichever candidate they want — Justice Elena Kagan referred to both the musical “Hamilton” and to the television show “Veep.” We asked Adam Liptak, The Times’s Supreme Court reporter, for some context, and he replied:

The two best writers on the Supreme Court are generally thought to be Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Elena Kagan, and neither is a stranger to pop culture references.

In 2008, Chief Justice Roberts quoted (some say misquoted) Bob Dylan in explaining why the plaintiff lacked standing in a dispute between two phone companies. Instead of citing a case to back up a legal proposition, he cited a lyric: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” (What Dylan actually sings, of course, is, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”)

The chief justice, 65, also drew on the classic rock canon at the argument of a copyright case in 2011. “What about Jimi Hendrix, right?” he asked. “He has a distinctive rendition of the national anthem.”

Justice Kagan, 60, has made her own contributions. In a 2013 case concerning signs on trucks, she gave a hypothetical example of one: “How am I driving? Call 213-867-5309.” That was a sly reference to “867-5309/Jenny,” Tommy Tutone’s indelible 1981 hit, which reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and will still get people of a certain age onto the dance floor at college reunions.

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