Tuesday’s elections were a disaster for the Republican Party. From President Barack Obama’s re-election to the loss of seats in the House and Senate, Republicans were chastened by an electorate that seemed to them to be changing overnight. Even their brightest ray of hope — their ability to hang onto control of the House — was tempered by the fact that more voters nationwide backed Democrats than Republicans for those seats. If not for Republican gerrymandering after 2010, the GOP would have lost that as well.
The GOP’s losses have been blamed on everything from changing demographics to the incompetence of the Romney campaign to Hurricane Sandy. All of those played their part, but they are not the only reason that Republicans find themselves losing ground nationally. Now, Republicans find themselves in the difficult position of trying to find a way to attract new voters without sparking a revolt from a base that has been told for four years that any compromise is akin to treason.
Demographic Shift Unraveling Nixon Coalition
The current Republican Party has its genesis in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act was passed primarily by a coalition of Northern Democrats and New England Republicans, and signed into law by a Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson. The South had been discontented with Democrats since the 1948 convention, and the end of segregation cracked the Solid South wide open. For the first time since before the Civil War, white Southerners were fully in play.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater, running in support of states’ rights, won only Arizona and 5 states in the Deep South, but that victory was an awakening for the GOP. In 1968, former Vice President Richard Nixon reached out to disaffected Southerners, building on Goldwater’s campaign. Nixon lost the Deep South to George Wallace, but victories in North and South Carolina and Tennessee †were enough to put Nixon past 270 electoral votes. In 1972, Nixon would sweep the South, and while Jimmy Carter won it back in 1976, the South moved permanently into the Republican column in 1980.
The Southern Strategy brought white, working-class, and — frankly — racist Democrats into the Republican fold. The strategy paid dividends outside the South; it was used as a way to reach out to socially conservative voters who might have voted for Democrats on economics alone. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he said it would cost Democrats the South for a generation. He was wrong. It cost them for two generations.
The voting public is not static, though. The white voters who were attracted to the Republican Party have gotten older, while younger voters were born into a nation that was, at least officially, trying not to be racist. People of color grew steadily as a percentage of the population, and younger voters grew up without the racist baggage of Jim Crow.
For a long time, this didn’t really matter for the Republican Party. There were enough socially conservative white voters to win. Republicans worked hard to keep this group in the fold, opposing social insurance programs as hand-outs to minorities, embracing implacable opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights and allowing the nativist wing of the party to dictate a draconian approach to immigration. The strategy worked — until it didn’t.
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