The Nation magazine has uncovered, and released, an infamous interview with former GOP dirty tricks master Lee Atwater, where he explains the methodology behind the victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The secret, it turns out, is Evolution:
So, in the ’80 election, a back to our southern strategy. So southern strategy now, basically, and here’s another thing Saul and you and I talked about, is who controls elections in the south. Statewide elections in the south are controlled, if you want to use the term, George Wallace voters. Because statistically Blacks went for Kennedy in mass, they went for Johnson in mass, they went for Humphrey in mass, they went for Carter in mass, and they went for Carter in mass, and McGovern in mass. Country club whites went for the Republican every time in mass. So, the blue collar vote, in 1964, goes for Goldwater. He carried the deep south. Remember the other two vote the same way. In 1968 for George Wallace, he carries the south. In 1972 he goes for Nixon. In 1976 he goes for Carter. And here’s, we’re leading up to my whole strategy for carrying the south in 1980. In other words, the whole focus group in the south is that blue collar worker. Now that is important when you tie it back to the racist thing, because he was also the guy most threatened by the black, and also the most prone to be quote “a racist.” And in full 1980, and a little bit in 1976, the race issue is how you approach that vote. Plus the most conservative guy on fiscal matters has always got his vote and the toughest son of a bitch in national defense and foreign policy has always got his vote.
Lee identified that the issue at hand was not racism, but a sizable class of voter who happened to be racist. But over time, these voters changed, as he explained:
…people in the south are just like any people in the history of the world. Once something becomes reality, people adapt to it. We fought, we kicked, we struggled, with all of these problems, first in ’54 then the voting rights stuff, but by the 70’s it was reality. And you just adapt to reality and move on. So I’m not saying that we, that it was done down there because we thought it was great, or we finally understood everyone. It became a part of our life.
The people changed. Once civil rights were established, and it was not going away, so the people adapted. Racism stopped becoming the core issue, and instead other issues rose to the forefront. These issues, he identified were:
So in 1980 I think the crucial thing of in 1980 is number 1 – the two dominant issues in southern politics which had been race and party, being you had to be a Democrat to win, had pretty well dissolved. And, and the main issue became the economy and national defense. Now, that’s interesting in that those are the issues basically that Goldwater, in other words the south in 1964 was considered, uh, uh, reactionary, neanderthalic, and so forth, uh, because we want mainstream not only on the race thing, but on the economic issues and national defense all, we were considered, you know, ultra-conservative and everything. What happens is a guy like Reagan who campaigns in 1980 on a 1964 Goldwater platform, minus the boo-boos and any, and obvious the voting rights act, TVA and all that bullshit, but when you look at the economics and the national defense, what had happened is that the south went from being behind the times to being the mainstream.
This then became the lynchpin of the Republican strategy for the next 30 years. Even in 2012, the same strategy, which Lee Atwater had developed to court the southern vote, was in full effect. Unfortunately for the GOP, they had kept the strategy but had forgotten the methodology, what had made it work in the first place. They had forgotten that people change. As a situation settles in, and is not changing, people adapt, and move on with their lives. Atwater knew this, which is why his strategy, while different than Henry Dent’s for Nixon in 1968, was just as effective.
He best expresses this shift in this clip, which is NSFW:
Lee knew that the party message needs to change with the times. The current GOP has lost this message. Gay marriage is not going away. Abortion is not going away. They need to accept it, and the more they refuse to evolve, a word they hate, the more left behind they will be.