Birth of the Southern Strategy

Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater greets supporters during a whistle-stop tour of Rock Island, Ill., on Oct. 3, 1964 Photograph by Henry Burroughs/AP Photo

1964 Five Southern states give their electoral votes to Barry Goldwater, the start of the Republican takeover of the Deep South.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he’s said to have predicted, “There goes the South for a generation.” He feared black suffrage would prompt white Southerners to abandon the Democratic Party. Under Richard Nixon, the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” aimed to ensure it by systematically making veiled (and often not-so-veiled) racist appeals to white voters. “From now on,” Nixon aide Kevin Phillips told him, “the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote, and they don’t need any more than that.”

The Southern Strategy succeeded beyond what even Nixon could have imagined. It set off—or hastened—a political realignment in which the Democratic “Solid South” abandoned an attachment dating to the Civil War. In 1980, Ronald Reagan carried the entire South except for Jimmy Carter’s home state of Georgia. In 1994 a gain of 19 House seats in the South enabled the Republican takeover of Congress.

Two generations later, the Deep South is reliably Republican. The last rural white Democrat in Congress, Representative John Barrow of Georgia, was defeated in the November midterms. In its right-wing politics, cultural outlook, and relationship with racial minorities, the Republican Party is thoroughly Southernized. This has alienated former Republican voters on the West Coast and in New England, an historical bastion of the Grand Old Party that’s almost as bereft of congressional Republicans as the South is of Democrats.

The Southern stronghold has given Republicans a virtual lock on the House. But in presidential elections, America’s changing demographic profile has turned Nixon’s prize into a poisoned chalice. The 2016 Republican nominee is certain to carry the South. The party’s fortune will hinge on whether that candidate can succeed anywhere else.

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