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A Changing Southern Electorate: Finding That Populist Core That Money Can't Buy

I’ll never forget the moment I was most proud of Mississippians. It was election day 1983, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Allain defeated his Republican opponent, Leon Bramlett, by a 10-point margin.
Just weeks before election day, Allain, a crusading populist who as attorney general had battled successfully against the state’s big utility companies and the conservative Delta demigods who held executive as well as legislative power, was publicly accused by powerful Republican financiers of being a homosexual who trafficked with black male transvestites and collected pornography in his apartment.
Although Allain’s previous wide margin among voters slipped as a result of the allegations, he made good his claim that Mississippians would provide the ultimate “lie detector’s test” on election day. It was the dirtiest race that this veteran reporter has ever covered, and the dirt throwers were rebuked.
I felt the same way this past election day when President Obama won re-election despite an avalanche of money spent against him by wealthy corporate donors who remain anonymous thanks to the U.S. “Corporate” Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” ruling.
By mid-October, the so-called “Super PACs” created after Citizens United had raised an estimated $660 million. Such groups spent $65 million-plus on television ads in the presidential race, much of it negative and most of it against Obama, before October.
The poison spread about Obama by that campaign money and the Republican Party’s media arm, Fox News, for months—no, let’s say years—came from the same bilious cesspool as the one those Mississippi Republican financiers bathed in back in 1983. It was that poison—Obama the “socialist”, Obama the Kenyan foreigner — that contributed to the incident on the University of Mississippi campus the night of the election, when students protesting Obama’s victory filled the air with the noxious “N” word.
On paper, the president and Republican opponent Mitt Romney had comparable campaign chests, each nearly $1 billion. Some 56 percent of Obama’s individual donors contributed $200 or less. Only 23 percent of Romney’s donors did. Romney billionaire supporters Sheldon and Miriam Adelson together gave $20 million to their candidate, nearly six times the size of Obama’s largest individual contribution.
In the world of post-Citizens United politics, however, the cash story isn’t on paper or in the files of the Federal Election Commission. It’s back in the smoke-filled rooms where Antonin Scalia and his black-robed brethren believe it ought to be.
Big Money did get results this past election day even though it failed to buy the White House or U.S. Senate seats sought by the likes of Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or held by Jon Tester of Montana. Aided by gerrymandering, Republicans kept a majority in the House although that majority shrank and House Republicans together actually received less total votes than Democratic candidates.
Here in Mississippi, outside cash played a significant role in Josiah Coleman’s victory over “Flip” Phillips in the state Supreme Court race in northern Mississippi. Only money and the negative ads it buys could explain why a political and judicial unknown like Coleman could beat a seasoned veteran and well-known attorney like Phillips.
What trumped money among the voters nationwide who cast their ballot for Obama was a sense that the president’s mission indeed was unfinished and he deserved another four years to complete it, that he inherited a mountainous mess from his Republican predecessor in 2008, and over the next four years faced a solid block of Republican obstructionists in Congress who believed his defeat was more important than the welfare of the nation.
People across America got it that the chameleon-like Romney was the embodiment of what writer Gertrude Stein meant when she said, “There is no there there.” They got it that Obamacare is not the evil embodiment of Soviet-style health care that Republicans and their media water boys at Fox News and SuperTalk Mississippi Radio want us to believe.
They believed the little guy will get a fairer deal from Obama than Romney would’ve ever given him. Let’s hope that the president delivers.
As noted before in this blog, most of the states in the nation’s poorest region—a region with a sordid history of voter suppression, racism, and oligarchical rule–went solidly for Romney. It’s one thing for bankers, oilmen, and corporate magnates to vote for one of their ilk, but quite another to see the (overwhelmingly white) small business people and blue-collar workers who did the same.
Beyond questions of race, did so-called “values” play a role? Southerners are religious, and I suppose many bought what they heard from the pulpits and right-wing radio.
They needed to remember what writer Thomas Frank once said: “Values may `matter most’ to voters, but they always take a back seat to the needs of money once the elections are won.”
Take Romney. He loved to talk jobs and his business acumen during the campaign. However, the company he once led, Bain Capital, made a mint by buying and forcing other companies into bankruptcy in part so it could break prior promises of pension and benefits for workers. That’s a fact, and that’s why he preferred to allow General Motors to go into bankruptcy rather than endorse Obama’s “bailout” of the auto industry.
The good news, however, is that the fine details of the 2012 election show that the South is changing. North Carolina-based Facing South reports that Obama’s decline in Southern votes between 2008 and 2012 roughly paralleled the national vote. Nonwhite voters are indeed becoming a larger share of the electorate, in the South as well as the nation, and this portends well for progressive politics.
Mississippi, once tagged the nation’s most conservative state, went for Romney, of course, but by the seventh smallest margin of the “red” states, according to the Jackson Free Press. Obama actually got a higher percentage of Mississippi votes in 2012 than he got in 2008. A close analysis of election results shows Mississippi voters trending left rather than right even though the state today remains very conservative. Factors in that trend include a 37 percent black population and a growing number of Latino and other minority voters in the state.
In that trend are also white voters. Obama actually carried the day among young Mississippi voters. That’s got to be scary to Republicans.
Maybe even some older white voters in Mississippi will rethink their views about Obama and Democrats over the next four years. After all, a long time ago—before Fox News and Citizens United—a lot of them voted for a grassroots populist Democrat named Bill Allain.

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