South hurts GOP efforts

In 1964, having signed the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson supposedly turned to an aide and said, “We have lost the South for a generation.” Johnson was too optimistic: racist Southern whites fled the Democratic Party in droves, driving GOP gains in the region for more than two generations and counting. 

Yet nearly 50 years later, those same Southern bigots who were gleefully scooped up by the Republican Party are now causing the GOP fits, as the party struggles to remain relevant on a national level.

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There’s no doubt that the South is the nation’s least tolerant region. A 2011 poll by Gallup found that while 86 percent of Americans reported approval of interracial marriage, that number was just 79 percent in the South (compared to 90 percent in the East, 91 percent in the West and 86 percent in the Midwest). A March 2012 poll of Mississippi voters by Public Policy Polling found that only 54 percent of the state’s Republicans thought interracial marriage should remain legal. And it’s no surprise that Southern states like South Carolina are leading the legal challenge against key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that protect the franchise for racial and ethnic minorities.

Republican efforts to tap into Southern bigotry have been so successful, in 2012 just 15 percent of white voters in Alabama and 10 percent of white voters in Mississippi voted for President Obama. In Oregon, 52 percent of white voters voted for Obama, while 53 percent did so in Washington. Even in Ohio, Obama got 41 percent of the white vote.

Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” clearly remains alive and well in the South. But it’s now hampering the GOP’s ability to appeal to voters nationally — and the new fault line isn’t race, but marriage equality. 

Recent national polling has consistently given supporters of same-sex marriage an overall majority. A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed supporters leading detractors 50-41 percent on the issue. But just 24 percent of Republicans stood for equality. Two weeks ago, a CNN poll had proponents with a solid 53-44 advantage, with just 25 percent of Republicans supporting. It had been 44-54 just four years ago. 

Of course, the South dramatically lags the nation in attitudes toward marriage equality. The Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, mapped out support for same-sex marriage in all 50 states, and geographic correlation is stark. Of the states with less than 40 percent support for equality, just two are outside the South — Utah and Nebraska. Arkansas and Louisiana are the floor, at 31 percent support. It’s just 32 percent in West Virginia and Tennessee, and 33 percent in Kentucky and Texas. 

The GOP’s policy allegiance to bigotry will undoubtedly pay dividends in those states, but it’s objectively hurting their national brand — young voters are loath to support bigotry of any kind, and 2012 exit polling found that Latinos were significantly more supportive of same-sex marriage than the nation at large (largely this is a function of their youth — remember, the median age of native-born Latinos is 18). 

In 1964, those Southern bigots were a cancer inside the Democratic Party. In 2013, those same Southern bigots are wreaking havoc inside the GOP. 

The big difference is that Democrats excised that tumor, even as they knew doing so would decimate their electoral chances for years to come. Republicans, facing equally painful electoral repercussions, refuse to pull the trigger. 

Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos.