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The GOP's Race Problem Goes Back to the Mad Men Era

by Tige Richardson, published

"Now we'll be stuck with Goldwater," quips  Roger Sterling of AMC's Mad Men, referring to recent news of Republican candidate Nelson Rockefeller's marriage to a divorcé 18 years his junior. Roger's statement is a reference to a popular narrative that is used to describe the demise of the former New York governor.

What is incomplete about this perception, however, is the impact that race relations had on Rockefeller's viability in the increasingly volatile South. At a point when both the Mad Men era (the series aired its final episode this month) and Republican presidential politics are at the forefront of pop culture, Politico Magazine decided to take a closer look at the impact that the civil rights movement had on Rockefeller's fall from grace.

Nelson Rockefeller was a moderate Republican candidate who was very vocal about his support for civil rights. In 1963, the Republican Party was still very uneasy about fully embracing the civil rights movement into their platform. Many rural southerns who were previously Democrats were defecting in light of the Kennedy administration's push for the Civil Rights Act.

Fast forward to May 2, 1963, two days before the Rockefeller's wedding. More than a thousand civil rights activist were arrested and beaten along their march into Birmingham to protest segregation. That headline was paired alongside news of the Rockefeller wedding in newspapers across the country. What followed was a steady decline in Rockefeller's polling numbers.

The correlation led many to believe that the wedding must have been the turning point in Mr. Rockefeller's trajectory. However, what is often ignored is the fact that there were other moderate candidates in the race.

George Romney of Michigan, William Scranton of Pennsylvania, and Mark Hatfield of Oregon were all moderate Republicans that were running for the party nomination, but none of them won the nomination. It was far-right candidate Barry Goldwater that was able to capitalize on his brand of social conservatism that supported segregation through "states' rights." Goldwater was able to put a respectable brand on extremism that allowed him to capture the party base. Sounds familiar, right?

Goldwater's win was not just a result of a flawed rival; it was a rebuke on the civil rights movement and the candidates who supported it. Nelson Rockefeller's marriage was impactful, but to say that it was the factor that turned the tide for Goldwater ignores a very crucial social dynamic that had a huge impact in the election.

In 1964, 80% of the black vote went to Democrats. Since then, many campaigns have used "southern strategies" to reinvigorate the party base. Although this has worked in some instances (neo-con, tea party), it has alienated the African-American vote. In 2012, Barack Obama received 93% of the African-American vote. Let me repeat that -- 93%. At this point, Don Draper wouldn't be able to bring the Republican brand back into favorability with the black community.

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