Nonsense about Nixon and Reagan

MLewyn's picture

A recent article in the New Republic has the reassuring (to me) headline: "Republicans Can't Afford to Ignore Cities Anymore."  I'm certainly all for Republicans not ignoring cities, but there was a passage in the article that made me want to bang my head against the nearest brick wall. 

"Kevin Phillips' seminal 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority outlined a "southern strategy" to wrest white people away from the Democrats—by demonizing the black inner cities. [One academic commented] "If you look at who he's talking to, it's a 'suburban strategy,'"  ... The approach was validated in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency without carrying a single major city. From then on, the GOP and cities seemed to be antithetical..."

The article's implication is that Republicans were doing fine in cities until 1968, and then Nixon and Reagan alienated city residents with antiurban policies.  But in fact, Nixon and Reagan did much better in cities than Romney or other recent Republican nominees.

For example, John McCain got only 16.3% of votes in the city of Philadelphia, and Mitt Romney did even worse (14%).  By contrast, Reagan got 34% of the city vote in both 1980 and 1984, and Nixon got almost 30% in the 1968 three-way race and 43.9% in 1972.  The Nixon/Reagan vote was an improvement over the Republican showing in 1960 (31.7%) and 1964 (26.2%).

Philadelphia is not alone.  In San Francisco, the Nixon/Reagan share of the city vote ranged from 31.4% (Reagan '84) to 41% (Nixon '72), more than twice Mitt Romney's 13% share of the city vote.  (More data at USA Election Atlas, if you're interested in digging deeper).

What changed?  That's a subject for another essay.  My conjecture: I don't think voters are really all that obsessed with whether a candidate is addressing urban (or suburban) issues.  Instead, I think that the white working/lower-middle class (which has been trending towards Republicans over the years) moved to suburbs, while whites with postgraduate educations (who have been trending towards Democrats) have moved to cities.    But that's a subject for another blog post.

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