Nixon’s lesson for Romney
Even after the leak of a tape that made Romney look out of touch (at best) or downright callous (at worst), hardly any leading pundits count him out altogether. And he’ll have a better chance of prevailing from his current underdog position if he learns the lessons—for good and for ill—from the last time the Republican Party nominated a ticket that couldn’t win either members’ home state.
The year in question is 1968, when Richard Nixon (a California native living in New York when he declared for the presidency) and Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew beat Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie while losing both New York and Maryland. Nixon and Agnew won by broadening their party base (albeit in a disgraceful way) and the Romney-Ryan ticket should consider a better and more forward-looking base-broadening strategy.
The Romney-Ryan ticket has a lot of similarities to the Nixon-Agnew ticket:
- Both members of both tickets are very smart policy wonks.
- Both tickets paired an ideologically flexible top man (Nixon had a conservative record but ran and governed to the center-left; Romney governed to the center-left but is running to the right) with a number two who had a more ideological reputation.
- Both Romney and Nixon selected running mates who were more popular with conservatives than they were.
And the way that Nixon and Agnew won is particularly relevant to Romney and Ryan: they broadened the party’s base. Unfortunately, the strategy their campaign adopted to do it is a disgraceful blot on the Republican Party’s history.
Although neither man was personally a bigot, they allowed and encouraged their campaign organization to play on racial fears and prejudices in an effort to encourage southern whites (almost all of them previously loyal Democrats) to vote Republican. The strategy wasn’t a smashing success in that George Wallace’s more openly racist and segregationist campaign won five southern states outright. But it did almost certainly provide a margin of victory that allowed Nixon to take Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia—and with those, the Electoral College.
Although its motivations and subtext were simply wrong, some specifics of the “Southern Strategy”—promising a tougher line on crime, most prominently— spoke to perfectly legitimate concerns that liberals either ignored or minimized. And the advantage of this base-broadening was simple. It not only gave Nixon and Agnew the votes they needed to win but also deprived Humphrey of votes he needed to win. Turning out a member of one’s own base adds a vote to one’s own total but doesn’t necessarily subtract one from one’s opponent. Getting support from a voter that the other side expects as its own does twice as much good.
And this is why, given their lagging performance in the polls, it’s time for Romney and Ryan to think boldly about capturing traditionally Democratic groups.
The Obama administration’s lackluster support for Israel and downright refusal to meet with the Jewish state’s prime minister creates an opening to attract Jews to the
The Romney campaign’s forward-looking answers to a science questionnaire gives it a chance to attract more highly educated scientists, engineers and environmentalists,
who are trending Democratic. (For the record, Romney says in black and white that climate change is real and human caused.)
Although gaining their support in huge numbers would probably require policy changes that aren’t feasible at this point, Romney should seriously think about changing policies on immigration and gay marriage issues when and if he moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Both Latino and LGBT voters have many good reasons to vote Republican but, largely because of misguided policies, aren’t going to vote that way in November.
Romney is behind in the polls and will need to do something dramatic if he wants to win six weeks from now. Getting some traditionally Democratic voters to switch
over would help a lot. It’s a risky move and, given Romney’s performance to date, has a decent chance of failure. But it’s certainly better than writing off a huge
portion of the electorate.