Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney cracked a birther joke on Friday, underlining just how much his campaign is banking on the vote of white people.
Speaking in his native state of Michigan, Romney said, “I love being home, in this place where Ann and I were raised. Where both of us were born.” He then added, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”
The Obama campaign fired back. In a statement, the campaign said, “Throughout this campaign, Governor Romney has embraced the most strident voices in his party instead of standing up to them. [...] But Governor Romney’s decision to directly enlist himself in the birther movement should give pause to any rational voter across America.”
The joke played on the tired, long-discredited conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in America. More to the point, it reinforced the idea that nobody would or should ever question that Romney is a “real” American, because Mitt Romney is white.
Romney’s joke is part of a recent chorus of racist dog-whistles emanating from the Romney campaign. In recent weeks, Romney has doubled down on ads attacking Obama for eliminating the work requirement for welfare, something Obama simply has not done. While the ads may be completely false, the ads play on old racist assumptions about welfare, ground that Republicans have been mining since before Ronald Reagan was talking about “strapping young bucks” buying steaks.
Romney also told supporters in July that members of the NAACP wanted “free stuff,” implying that America’s oldest civil rights group is just looking for handouts.
Romney has struggled to win support among non-white voters; indeed, a recent NBC poll showed him with literally no support among African Americans. So Romney apparently has decided to try to win by swinging enough older, white voters to win the election.
The move represents a last gasp for the Southern Strategy, in which Republicans use racial animosity to win support from southerners and blue-collar Democrats. The strategy, pioneered by President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s, ended up swinging the “solid South” from Democrats to Republicans; as Democrats booted racists from their party, Republicans welcomed them with open arms.
The strategy worked well for two generations, unquestionably helping Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes to the presidency. With long-term demographic trends making the country more diverse, Republicans have been faced with either abandoning the strategy, tweaking it by reaching out to non-white voters, or trying to ride it until it falls apart completely.
Romney appears to have decided that his best chance is to try to campaign like it’s 1969. Even 20 years ago, it would be a valid, if evil, strategy. The question is whether enough racist white voters remain for Romney’s racism to resonate, or whether the country has grown too diverse and too tolerant to fall for it.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore