GOP “Southern Strategy” is not working

By Brian Gilmore, November 28, 2012

The Republican Party’s infamous “Southern Strategy” is dying out, and that’s a good thing.

The re-election of Barack Obama as president with a multiracial coalition from all sections of the country is evidence that the appeal to race is finally becoming a losing hand.

Richard Nixon was the first to implement the Southern Strategy.

The idea was to get whites to vote Republican by appealing to their racial impulses. Lyndon Johnson had predicted that the traditionally Democratic South would go Republican after he signed the Voting Rights Act, and that’s what happened.

George Wallace, the arch-segregationist from Alabama, was key to the strategy’s birth. Wallace, who ran for president in 1968 on a third-party ticket, gathered 13 percent of the vote. But Nixon was still able to win half the Southern states, while Wallace won the other half (except Texas). In 1972, Nixon won the entire South.

Over the years, the Southern Strategy evolved.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan announced that he was running for president in Philadelphia, Miss., the same city where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964 during Freedom Summer. Reagan spoke about states’ rights in his speech. The racial message was obvious.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush surged ahead of Michael Dukakis by using the notorious Willie Horton ad. The campaign spot played to white fears by using the release of a black man on parole from prison.

In April 2010, then-Republican Party chairman, Michael Steele, an African-American, acknowledged that the party had pursued the Southern Strategy for 40 years.

In this latest presidential election, the strategy was present again.

During the GOP primaries, candidate Newt Gingrich rarely passed up an opportunity to refer to Obama as the “food stamp” president. Mitt Romney even managed to sneak in two references to food stamps during one of the presidential debates — actually, the one on foreign policy.

In August at a campaign rally, Romney joked to an audience there that “no one ever asked me for my birth certificate.” That was a crass reference to the unfounded controversy surrounding Obama’s birthplace.

John Sununu, an adviser to the Romney campaign, commented that Obama needed to “learn how to be an American.”

In the end, the country rejected these low appeals, just as the vast majority of Americans are rejecting the new secessionists who have surfaced after the election.

These are tremendously positive signs for the United States. Now, almost 150 years since the end of the Civil War, we are at last putting the stain of race behind us.

Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer. He can be reached at