Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush knew exactly what he was doing when he insulted African-American voters by alleging that the Democrats buy their votes with “free stuff.”
In fact, it was no accident that he hurled his slur at Democrats at a campaign stop in South Carolina. Bush is wallowing in single digits in the polls and he needed some spark to get the attention and touch the nerve of Deep South white, conservative voters. It’s not a new ploy.
Three and a half decades ago, then-GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential bid by thundering about states rights to a lily-white campaign crowd in Neshoba, Mississippi. In 2012, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney punched the same familiar race-tinged code themes: out-of-control spendthrift, bloated government to a virtually lily-white crowd in Norfolk, Virginia. Romney later doubled down on his subtle race card code message by insulting blacks as Bush did with the crack that Democrats supposedly bribe them by ladling out all sorts of welfare and entitlement goodies.
Bush can’t openly espouse states rights as Reagan crudely, and Romney only slightly less crudely, did. But he updated the code themes by lambasting Democrats, wasteful big government, runaway deficit spending on entitlement programs, and their full-blown assaults on the so-called Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security programs, and labor unions.
The “free stuff” to blacks dig was simply etching a lurid racial stereotype graphic to it for conservative voters. And stereotype it is.
The majority of the recipients of these programs have always been white senior citizens, retirees, women, and children, and white workers. But the programs have been artfully sold to many Americans as handouts to lazy, undeserving blacks, Hispanics and minorities.
Bush, as Reagan and Romney before him, ripped a page directly from the time tested Southern Strategy playbook of Richard Nixon for GOP presidential candidates.
The strategy has always had two hinges. One is to attack the allegedly liberal and bloated tax-and-spend big government. The second is to firmly lock down the majority popular and electoral vote in the 11 old Confederate and border states. Those states hold more than one-third of the electoral votes needed to bag the White House.
Bush’s blunt revival of the Southern Strategy recognizes two realities. If he’s the eventual GOP presidential nominee, he will get a negligible percentage of the black vote, and only a slightly higher percentage of the Latino vote.
Despite much talk that the white conservative vote has shrunk to the point of being marginalized, it isn’t. Whites make up more than 60 percent of America’s electorate. That’s a huge drop from what they represented in the 1980 presidential election. But even that doesn’t tell the white story.
In the 2012 election, President Barack Obama won only a majority of white vote in four states: Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
He could not even get a majority of white voters in heavily Democratic California, New York and Pennsylvania. Overall, Romney bagged nearly 60 percent of white voters. That translated out to a whopping 20 percent margin over Obama.
The raw racial vote numbers belie another stark political reality. Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win more than half the white vote. In every election since Nixon’s win in 1968, whites have voted consistently by either sizeable or comfortable margins for GOP presidential candidates.
Whites favored Reagan in 1984 by a 64-35 margin. They favored George Bush Sr. in 1988 by a 59-40 margin. Even when Democratic incumbents have won re-election by landslide margins as in Clinton’s re-election win in 1996, GOP presidential contender Bob Dole still edged Clinton out with white voters. He walloped Clinton by a double-digit margin of white conservative protestant voters.
The final presidential tally in 2008 gave ample warning of the potency of the GOP’s conservative white constituency. Obama made a major breakthrough by winning a significant percent of votes from white independents and young white voters. Among southern and heartland America white male voters, Obama made almost no impact.
Bush’s neo-Southern Strategy is anchored in another political reality. He hopes to duplicate what Romney did and that’s grab the majority of conservative white voters.
In Romney’s 2012 GOP primary wins he got two-thirds of those that self-labeled themselves “strongly conservative” or “somewhat conservative.” That is no surprise for another reason.
Elections are usually won by candidates with a solid and impassioned core of bloc voters. White males, particularly older white males, vote consistently and faithfully. And they vote in a far greater percentage than Hispanics and blacks.
So Bush knowingly played the race card in part to boost his faltering campaign, in greater part because the recent history of presidential elections has shown that a GOP candidate’s only path to the White House is getting an overwhelming number of white voters in the South, the heartland states, and the swing states. Bush shrewdly calculated that in his political insult.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Torpedoing Hillary: The GOP Plan to Stop a Clinton White House” (Amazon ebook). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Los Angeles and KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.