Race, The Original Republican Sin
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.
—Lee Atwater, 1981
I played the race card in my very first race.
It was 1978 and my first client was running for Congress in Mississippi. His name was Jon Hinson. He had been chief of staff to a Mississippi congressman named Thad Cochran, who was now running for the Senate. (Actually, back then they called the head staffers “administrative assistants,” or AAs, but as government became more about positioning for that next job and less about service, that sounded too much like “secretaries,” so the more elevated “chief of staff” became common. What lobbying shop wants to pay $500,000 for a former AA?) In high school I had been a page when Hinson ran the congressional office, and I’d kept in touch when visiting the office on trips to D.C.
Hinson was running against the son of Senator John Stennis, a Mississippi icon of the Democratic Party. The son, John Hampton Stennis, was a state representative, and it was assumed he would win easily. I was in film school then at UCLA, and Hinson called and asked if I could make television commercials for his campaign. I told him I didn’t know how to make commercials, that I just made silly little films and wrote scripts I couldn’t sell. “That doesn’t matter,” he said. “You have to do it. I can’t afford to pay anyone who does this for real.” In retrospect, this might not have been the most compelling pitch. But like anyone who has gone to film school, I was eager to get out and actually do something even vaguely related to film, so I said yes.
I’d been one of those kids who loved politics and campaigns and had walked precincts since the 1967 “William Winter for Governor” campaign in Mississippi. Winter ran against the last avowed segregationist to be elected governor, John Bell Williams, and it was a race full of death threats and drama. Winter lost, but I fell in love with politics and read Teddy White’s Making of the President, 1960
over and over. It seemed a strange and intoxicating world, and when I left film school and started working in the Hinson campaign, I instantly felt at home. There was this sense of doing something that might actually matter
. If I came up with the right ad, I might make a little history—or at least that’s what I told myself. It was the tiniest bit of history—a Mississippi congressional seat—but it seemed infinitely more consequential than student films and debating what was the greatest opening camera move in cinema. The only problem was we were losing.
Stennis was a towering figure in Mississippi, and his name on the ballot was the obvious default choice for voters. Hinson was right when he said he couldn’t afford to hire anyone, because no one thought he would win and for good reason. We raised some money, put up a few positive ads, and moved comfortably into second place, which is where we seemed stuck. The problem was that the congressional district, which included a lot of Jackson, Mississippi, and Vicksburg, was around 30 percent African American and, true to form, Hinson was getting less than 10 percent of that vote.
Thad Cochran was facing the same problem in his Senate race. No Republican had been elected statewide in Mississippi since Reconstruction, mostly because there really wasn’t much of a functioning Republican Party in Mississippi. Cochran had won a congressional race against a very weak Democrat and then relied on incumbency to win easy races, but every other member of the Mississippi congressional delegation was Democratic. In his Senate race, Cochran had one great advantage: Charles Evers, the brother of the assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was running as an independent. Not surprisingly, he was drawing a significant portion of the African American vote. With the bulk of the black vote going to a third-party candidate, the race between the Republican and the Democrat largely came down to a fight for white voters. And that was a fight Cochran was winning. He was a young, likable attorney from Jackson and had a strong base in his former congressional district. Evers had no chance of winning, but he was enabling Cochran to move into first place.
What we needed in the Hinson campaign was a like dynamic of an independent African American drawing black votes from the Democrat. And we had one: Evan Doss Jr., a thirty-year-old African American, had qualified to run as an independent for the congressional seat. The problem was that he wasn’t famous like Charles Evers, so few, including those in the black community, knew he was running. So I did the obvious thing: I made ads that showed the Republican, the Democrat, and independent, Evan Doss. I did it like a public service announcement: “In the Fourth Congressional District, three candidates are running.” I put all three on the screen with their names. “Jon Hinson is the Republican nominee. John Hampton Stennis is the Democratic nominee. Evan Doss is running as an independent and would be the first African American candidate elected to Congress in Mississippi since Reconstruction.”
That was it. I thought it was terribly clever, and it didn’t bother me a bit on any “I’m playing the race card” kind of level. What could be wrong with informing voters of the choice they faced? And it worked beautifully. On Election Day, Hinson won with 51.6 percent of the vote followed by John Hampton Stennis with 26.4 percent and Evan Doss with 19 percent. Every vote for Doss was a vote that would have gone to Stennis. In the end, Hinson might have won without the black independent, but it would have been very, very close.
In my first race I had stumbled onto a truth as basic and immutable as the fact that water freezes below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit: race was the key in which much of American politics and certainly all of southern politics was played. It was really very simple: the Democratic candidate needed 90-plus percent of black votes to win. If a significant portion voted for a third party, the Republican would win.
It hadn’t always been this way. Before 1964, Republican presidential candidates could expect to get between 30 and 40 percent of the African American vote. Dwight Eisenhower got 39 percent in 1956. Four years later, Richard Nixon campaigned with Jackie Robinson and won 32 percent of black voters. In 1964, Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, and his black support plummeted to 7 percent. Since 1964, no Republican presidential candidate has broken 17 percent with African American voters, and by 2016 only 3 percent considered themselves Republican.
Politics is in many ways a perfect marketplace. Candidates and parties learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t and focus time, energy, and money on the share of the marketplace that pollsters tell them is accessible to persuasion or motivation. Since 1964, Republicans have learned that they will have little success in appealing to black voters. It’s not that most campaigns didn’t make at least some effort, but it was always done with the knowledge that breaking 10 percent would be a significant achievement.
What happens if you spend decades focused on appealing to white voters and treating nonwhite voters with, at best, benign neglect? You get good at doing what it takes to appeal to white voters. That is the truth that led to what is famously called “the southern strategy.” That is the path that leads you to becoming what the Republican Party now proudly embraces: a white grievance party.
All my adult life in politics, I’ve heard Republicans blame our problems with black voters on “how” we communicated with the “minority community.” The Republican Party has hired an entire cottage industry of black consultants to help candidates, campaigns, and elected officials crack the code of how to talk to African Americans, as if there were some linguistic issue blocking the party from returning to the party of Abraham Lincoln. It’s all nonsense, and black voters get that it’s nonsense.
The reason African Americans overwhelmingly reject Republicans isn’t based on word choices or phrasing. It’s based on policy. It isn’t how Republicans are talking to black voters that results in 90 percent or more of those voters refusing to vote for Republicans. It’s what the Republicans are doing, once elected. The fact that the Republican establishment is so invested in the myth that their problems are a matter of language is revealing and self-damning. At the root of it is a deep condescension that they—the de facto White Party of America—know what is best for black folks, and it’s unfortunate these black folks don’t seem to get it but, you know, they are different and we have to talk to them in a language they can understand.
The reality is just the opposite. Since 1964, black voters have heard the Republican Party with exquisite clarity; more important, they have seen what Republicans are doing once in office. It’s summed up nicely in a chapter called “The GOP’s Rise as ‘the White Man’s Party’” in Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney López: “Where in 1962 both parties were perceived as equally, if tepidly, supportive of civil rights, two years later 60 percent of the public identified Democrats as more likely to pursue fair treatment, versus only 7 percent who so identified the Republican Party.” Barry Goldwater ran on a carefully crafted platform of coded racism that contradicted his previous support of civil rights legislation. As Walter De Vries and Jack Bass wrote in the 1978 Emerging Coalitions in American Politics,
The Republican decision to exploit the race issue and abandon the option of becoming a party of reform manifested itself in the 1961 speech in Atlanta by Barry Goldwater to a gathering of Southern Republicans. “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are,” he declared. Goldwater then spelled it out, saying that school integration was “the responsibility of the states. I would not like to see my party assume it is the role of the federal government to enforce integration in the schools.”
The “ducks” were white voters, and in 1964, of the six states Goldwater carried, five were in the old Confederacy (the other being his home state of Arizona). African American support for Republicans fell off a cliff in 1964 and has never returned. As Hispanic and other nonwhite support plummets for Republicans, I hear many in the party assure themselves it is temporary and will “bounce back” as soon as the “right” leader emerges for the party. That’s a hopeful fantasy, as the example of 1964 proves.
When Jon Hinson beat Senator Stennis’s son in my first congressional race, it received some attention in national political circles as an upset. Suddenly I found candidates interested in hiring me to make television commercials for their campaigns. It was how I stumbled into becoming a political consultant. I found I could work in campaigns for a short time and have the off-season to try to write books and articles. At the time no one would pay me much to write, so it was an easy way to make a living doing what was in effect seasonal work, sort of like migrant labor work but indoors and a lot easier.
A few years later I was working in the first congressional campaign for a young Florida banker named Connie Mack. He was running in a newly created district around Fort Myers, Florida, that was created to be a safe Republican seat. His toughest campaign was in the Republican primary, and after that it seemed fairly certain he would win the general election. (He went on to win with 65 percent of the vote.) It was a predominantly white district, but for some reason the Republican National Committee sent down an African American consultant to coach the campaign and candidate on how to maximize appeal to black voters. It was hyped as a “highly important” meeting with a great drumroll from Washington.
I was still naive enough to think there might be some secret language we could learn that would allow us to move the hearts of at least a substantial number of black voters. We had a simple storefront campaign headquarters. It reminded me of the scenes from Teddy White’s Making of the President,
and every time I walked into it, I felt like a character of White’s, playing out in my head the drama of coming behind in the West Virginia primary when Kennedy beat Humphrey. It made the endeavor seem far grander than a routine election of a nice-guy banker who had run mostly because he was bored and had a name that still meant something to the older snowbirds in the district. (Connie Mack’s grandfather and namesake managed the Philadelphia Athletics for their first fifty seasons.) Our pollster, Arthur Finkelstein, an intense mad genius who had specialized in electing hard-right candidates like Jesse Helms, muttered to Connie in one poll briefing, “Every time an ambulance goes by, you lose a voter.”
For this critical meeting with the African American consultant, we were summoned to a small conference room at a local hotel. It was an all-day meeting and catered. I had never been to a catered meeting before. Our small staff gathered with Connie and his wife and the RNC consultant. He was dressed impeccably in an elegant suit with a blue shirt that had a white collar. He was wearing Gucci loafers, which I wouldn’t have known except later one of the young staffers, who was gay, noted with grudging admiration that they were nice shoes. (Just about every Republican campaign I’ve worked on had a sizable gay contingent of staffers. The more conservative the candidate, the greater seemed the percentage of gay staffers. The correlation between the conservatism of a Republican candidate and the number of gay staffers seems so reliable that in a later campaign when there was discussion among the staff of the candidate’s sexual orientation, I could declare with some certainty, “I don’t think our guy is conservative enough to be gay.” The point was accepted, and I later heard a young press operative trying to explain this to a baffled reporter who, thank God, did not quote him.)
Copyright © 2020 by Stuart Stevens. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.