Republicans are feeling kind of bad about being white. Not in the white guilt sort of way, but because they’re realizing that being so white ushered in a loss against a candidate with a broad multiracial majority. Liberal pundits are declaring Mitt Romney’s failure the final nail in the coffin of the Southern Strategy, the Republican Party’s 40-year effort to use anti-black and more recently anti-brown racism to gather enough white votes to win. There’s a seeming consensus that it’s less and less possible to win an election when, as Slate’s Tom Scocca calculated, 88 percent of your candidate’s votes come from a population that’s a rapidly shrinking as a proportion of the electorate.
But there’s a different story worth telling about the Southern Strategy that’s not about its immediate death. Though the strategy of appealing to white voters’ fears of federal intrusion into their local power failed to get Romney elected to the White House—no number of thinly veiled welfare slanders or comments about self-deportation could garner the pure mass of white votes he needed—in the states below the Mason-Dixon line, the old Southern Strategy still worked just as it was conceived. In as much as the strategy is still about coalescing the region that stretches from Baltimore to El Paso, Republicans on Tuesday may have logged historic wins, victories that even four years ago seemed out of reach.
In the South, Republicans swept state legislatures and governors mansions on Nov. 6 and provided Romney with his strongest base of support. In two Southern states in particular, Arkansas and North Carolina, the GOP secured wins that a couple years ago were firmly in Democratic hands.
Arkansas has long been something of a southern outlier. At the state legislative level, Arkansas has consistently bucked regional trends, voting for solid Democratic majorities for nearly all its history. But recently, that’s begun to change. In 2010, Republicans made massive gains in the legislature. And on Tuesday, for the first time since Reconstruction, the GOP wrestled control of the Arkansas House and Senate. After never breaking more than 30 percent of the legislature before 2010, Arkansas Republicans now control 21 of 35 House seats and 51 of 100 seats in the Senate.
Janine Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas who studies elections and southern politics, says that for much of the last half century, racial politicking didn’t garner votes in Arkansas like it did in the rest of the South. “The race card was not as effective here as it was elsewhere in the South in the 60s and 70s and 80s,” Parry said. “There’s a relatively small population [of people of color] and it just didn’t play.”
So Arkansas politics remained blue long past their time, the old party affinities hanging on well after organized reaction to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act eviscerated southern Democratic power.
But as the state’s population began to change—Arkansas is now 4 percent less white than it was a decade ago—and voters were confronted by a black candidate and now president, the GOP’s pulled out the good old Southern Strategy to great effect.
“Now what’s happening is that we’re getting penetration by these kinds of Republican messaging and tactics,” Parry said. “Immigration, Medicaid expansion, and other big issues were brought into the local fights and they are issues that get people riled up into the polls.”
Like Arkansas, North Carolina has stood apart. At least one house of the North Carolina legislature had been in Democratic control for over a hundred years. But amid the Tea Party surge in 2010, Democratic control crumbled and Republicans seized both chambers of the state’s General Assembly.
On Election Day, with the help of GOP controlled redistricting, voters expanded the Republican lead in the legislature, giving the Republicans a super majority in both houses. They also sent a Republican to the governor’s mansion for the first time in two decades and cast their 15 electoral votes to Romney.
Elsewhere in the South, Republicans nabbed more predictable victories on Election Night. Indeed, across the country, Republicans logged broad wins at the local level, securing power in a majority of statehouses and governor’s mansions.
While there were exceptions to the GOP’s Southern sweep—namely in Virginia, where voters backed Obama, and Maryland, which long ago slipped above the line—the expanding Republican success at the state level in the South is as noteworthy as it is insufficient at the national level. After pouring huge sums of money and a massive ground game into pulling as many white voters as possible and wrapping up a 40-year effort to turn the South red, Romney still lost. And pollsters say that even if the campaign had gathered the 60 percent of the white vote it thought necessary, Romney would still have lost. It’s just not working anymore.
So what’s this mean for the Republicans? Most likely that a change is going to have to come. And that could certainly happen. There’s nothing permanent about the Democrats’ hold on voters of color. Much has been said also about the Republican efforts to appeal to conservatism within parts of communities of color. Republicans could, for example, go after middle class people of color in the same way they target middle class white folks, by telling them Democrats will raise their taxes. For 40 years, the message to white voters has been that folks of color are going to get what’s yours. But there’s no particular reason why Republicans could not wage a similar offense to win over subsections of people of color without racial codes.
Of course, that can only work if Republicans stop sounding like they despise people of color.
“If a salesman comes to your door, it doesn’t matter how good the thing is, if they show up say tell you they hate people like you, you’ll slam the door, no matter how much you like the product,” says Justin Gross, a professor of politics at University of North Carolina and an analyst with the polling firm Latino Decisions.
But, Gross says, if Republicans stopped talking like they wanted all immigrants to flee or telling racially coded lies about welfare, “Things could shift. If they clean up their rhetoric, as for the margin who would shift, who knows what would have happened.”
That’s not to say it all comes down to words. Policies obviously matter just as much. Two days after the election, Republicans seem to get that. On Thursday John Boehner told Diane Sawyer he was “confident” Congress would pass immigration reform.