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Published: Sunday, 9/16/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Red-state Mississippi sits out this year's election

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

OXFORD, Miss. -- The shops on the Square are mobbed (the monogramming machines are working overtime), the famous Grove is full of tailgaters (the tang of barbecue is in the breeze, along with the scent of limes sliced for scores of plastic cups filled with gin and tonic), and before long the football stadium here is full of revelers (cheering on Ole Miss in an ancient gridiron ritual).

Only one element of a classic fall is missing in Mississippi this year. There's no presidential campaign.

Exactly a half-century since one of the most defining battles in America's past -- the forced admission of a black student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi -- the struggle to define the future of America is being fought elsewhere.

Technically, there's an election on, and in seven weeks voters here will choose between President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney, just as they will everyplace else. But here, this is an election without a campaign.

The only one who argues the contrary is Ebbie Spivey, and she couldn't pass a lie-detector test -- in fact, she can't stop chuckling -- when she says the race is close, really and truly it is.

"Don't tell anyone we're going to win this," the woman who served as state Republican chairman during the Reagan administration tells an out-of-state visitor. "We've got to keep our people energized. Say it's a lot closer than people think."

But it isn't. And though it doesn't have a campaign, Mississippi this fall represents two important stories, both critical to understanding our political culture and the choice we are about to make.

The first is that the Electoral College converts the American electorate into an Orwellian animal farm, where some states are more equal than others. There's a real campaign in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, and maybe a half-dozen other places. The candidates will compete there vigorously, the voters will be courted assiduously, the level of passion will rise proportionately.

But there's no campaign here, where the GOP will win in an easy autumn stroll, just as Republicans will in Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, and both Dakotas. Nor is there a campaign in Illinois, Washington, Oregon, and California, where Democrats are confident and Republicans are in retreat, if not virtual retirement.

"We might get a sense of the campaign, but only a sense and only from a distance on network television," says Charles Overby, chairman of the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss. "The campaign flies right over Mississippi."

We'll leave others to debate the remedies to this peculiar phenomenon, or even if a remedy is needed. But it's incontrovertible that, for some Americans, presidential politics is a participatory sport, and for others it is a spectator sport.

The other American story is vital and historical, and it requires us to say that there hasn't been much of a presidential campaign in Mississippi for most of its history.

For 18 consecutive elections -- every presidential contest between the election of Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and the final re-election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944 -- Mississippi was reliably Democratic. In 1940, the Democratic margin was 96 percent, which stretches the definition of definitive.

That Democratic dominance was deep, but it wasn't permanent. For the past eight consecutive elections -- between Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Mr. Obama in 2008 -- Mississippi has been just as reliably Republican.

That switch is at the center of the political character of the contemporary United States. For years, political scientists spoke of a South that was solidly Democratic. Republicans here didn't even select a gubernatorial nominee for the 80 years leading up to 1963. It took until 1991 for the election of the first GOP governor in more than a century, Kirk Fordice.

Richard Nixon's September, 1960, visit was the first time a Republican had campaigned here in more than a century. He came only because he vowed to campaign in every state.

Mr. Reagan came immediately after his 1980 nomination, attending the Neshoba County Fair and stirring controversy by using the phrase "states rights" in the county where three civil-rights workers were killed in 1964. Michael Dukakis attended the same event eight years later.

Both nominees came in 2008, only because the first debate was held at the University of Mississippi. Generally, candidates steer clear of Mississippi.

For about a third of American history, Southern whites voted Democratic because of the party's ties to the Old Confederacy. Southern blacks voted Republican because of the party's ties to Abraham Lincoln and emancipation.

Many complex factors changed that -- principally Lyndon Johnson's embrace of voting rights for blacks and Mr. Nixon's Southern strategy that capitalized on uneasiness about the Democratic Party. But now the conversion is complete, and the Republicans' domination is complete.

There is nothing happening campaign-wise in Mississippi, and much of the South, all tinted red this fall. But that does not mean that Mississippi and the South are not important. It means the opposite.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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