The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What we get wrong about the Southern strategy

It took much longer — and went much further — than we think.

The U.S. flag and a Confederate flag hang side-by-side on the porch of a home just one block from the home of former president Jimmy Carter. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Most Americans have heard the story of the “Southern strategy”: The Republican Party, in the wake of the civil rights movement, decided to court Southern white voters by capitalizing on their racial fears. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater first wielded this strategy in 1964 and Richard Nixon perfected it in 1968 and 1972, turning the solidly Democratic South into a bastion of Republicanism.

But this oversimplified version of the Southern strategy has a number of problems. It overstates how quickly party change occurred, limits the strategy solely to racial appeals, ignores how it evolved and distorts our understanding of politics today.

In reality, the South swung back and forth in presidential elections for four decades following 1964. Moreover, Republicans didn’t win the South solely by capitalizing on white racial angst. That decision was but one in a series of decisions the party made not just on race but on feminism and religion as well. The GOP successfully fused ideas about the role of government in the economy, women’s place in society, white evangelical Christianity and white racial grievance, in what became a “long Southern strategy” that extended well past the days of Goldwater and Nixon.

Over the course of 40 years, Republicans fine-tuned their pitch and won the allegiance of Southern whites (and their sympathizers nationwide) by remaking their party in the Southern white image.

Goldwater’s campaign did launch the Southern strategy, originally called “Operation Dixie,” by directly and aggressively championing his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a result, the senator won five Deep South states, including 87 percent of the vote in Mississippi. But this blunt appeal may have done more harm than good, because, other than his native Arizona, these were the only states Goldwater won.

Four years later, understanding the risks of such an overt campaign against civil rights, Nixon’s team instead coded their racial appeals. The “silent majority” of white Southerners that the candidate needed to attract understood that Nixon’s call for the restoration of “law and order,” for example, was a dog whistle, signaling his support for an end to protests, marches and boycotts, while his “war on drugs” played on racialized fears about crime. Nixon also adopted a stance of “benign neglect” on civil rights enforcement, a message that his advocates, such as Democrat-turned-Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, bluntly conveyed to Southern whites on his behalf. As Thurmond put it, “If Nixon becomes president, he has promised that he won’t enforce either the Civil Rights or the Voting Rights Acts. Stick with him.”

The strategy worked — but only temporarily. Nixon did not lock the region down permanently for Republicans, as the traditional Southern strategy narrative asserts. Instead, in 1976, Jimmy Carter, a white, born-again Southern Baptist peanut farmer, recaptured the region for Democrats. While white Southerners were attracted to the GOP’s new racially coded message, Carter had a trump card with these voters: He was authentically one of them. To overcome this identity-based appeal, Republicans needed to resurrect old threats and manufacture news ones. They did both.

During his 1980 presidential bid, Ronald Reagan expanded Nixon’s racial code to “colorblind” appeals for economic justice. He encouraged Americans to move past race, but also invoked the image of the “welfare queen,” a black woman whom Reagan described as having “80 names, 30 addresses, [and] 12 Social Security cards,” resulting in a tax-free income of $150,000. In doing so, he portrayed racial minorities as undeserving “takers,” while erasing the institutional racism at the heart of economic inequity. The message to Southern white voters was both that African Americans were to blame for their own standing in society and that government programs aimed at alleviating racial inequities would disadvantage white Americans.

The GOP also pounced on another emerging wedge issue provoking anxiety among white Southerners. Both Republicans and Democrats had long supported the Equal Rights Amendment. The 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, organized to push for ratification, featured former Republican first lady Betty Ford and Democratic first lady Rosalyn Carter. But bipartisanship couldn’t shield the ERA from a growing backlash on the right driven by Phyllis Schlafly’s organization, STOP ERA, which stood for Stop Taking Our Privileges. Schlafly misleadingly and ominously insisted that the ERA would force women to put their newborns in government-run day care, serve on the front lines of combat, embrace lesbianism and enter the workplace.

This portrayal resonated deeply with female voters trying to live up to the ideals of “Southern white womanhood.” This construct, which had been manufactured in the Antebellum era to justify the South’s racial hierarchy, asserted that white women were delicate and fragile and needed constant protection from black males. Over time, it cast white supremacy as chivalry while relegating Southern white women to a distant pedestal in the home where they could be taken care of by men. According to Schlafly, the ERA would destroy Southern white women’s way of life.

The resonance of Schlafly’s message provoked an enormous response. The activist and her allies attracted an audience of 20,000 for a “pro-family” counter-rally opposite the National Women’s Conference. The Republican establishment took notice, reimagining the party’s agenda to secure the support of these Southern white women. In 1980, after 40 years of support for the ERA, the GOP dropped it from its platform. Republicans also began championing traditional gender roles, politicizing abortion and gay rights (both of which anti-feminists associated with feminism) and redirecting their anti-big-government rhetoric toward the ERA’s federal enforcement clauses.

Though Republicans survived the internal threat posed by Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign, their relationship with Southern white voters remained vulnerable. In both 1992 and 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton captured five Southern states by capitalizing, as Carter had, on his insider status as both a Southerner and a Southern Baptist.

Once again, the GOP recognized that it needed a new appeal, one that portrayed Democrats as a threat to the brand of Christian values Republicans had been championing for two decades. This time the party worked to reframe its positions on a host of domestic issues, ranging from health care to foreign policy, into matters of religious belief. By making the full spectrum of political debates about fundamental values, Republicans forged an unbreakable bond with Southern white evangelical voters, who went from social conservatives to all-out Republicans by the 2000s.

The long Southern strategy had finally come to fruition, and it is still working today. The GOP’s partisan conversion of Southern white evangelicals is so complete that no longer must a Republican candidate hold authentic religious beliefs to secure their support. Nowhere is this clearer than in Southern white evangelical support for Donald Trump. Indeed, only 38 percent of white evangelicals living in the South identified Trump as a Christian, but 84 percent of them still voted for him.

Similarly, despite the long-standing national gender gap, where more women vote for the Democratic Party than men, Southern white women remain firmly in the Republican camp. In 2016, while Hillary Clinton captured the support of white women outside of the South 52 to 48, Trump bested her among white women who live in the South, 64 percent to 36 percent. And this result was not unusual: In 2018, only 25 percent of white women voted for Democrat Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s gubernatorial race.

Understanding the full range of the GOP’s efforts in the South since Nixon clears up any confusion as to how Trump, a man whose personal life seems to violate every moral precept avowed by most Southern white conservatives, secured their unyielding allegiance. Trump has wielded the GOP’s Southern playbook with precision: defending Confederate monuments, eulogizing Schlafly at her funeral and even hiring Reagan’s Southern campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Trump, in many ways, is no anomaly. He is the very culmination of the GOP’s long Southern strategy.