Old times here have been forgotten: Deep in Dixie, the candidates look away

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OXFORD, Miss.

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

Only one element of a classic fall is missing here 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, into the University of Mississippi -- the struggle to define the future of America is being fought elsewhere.

Technically, of course, there's an election on, and in seven weeks voters here will choose between President Barak 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 chair 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 the Republicans will in Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska and both Dakotas. Nor is there a campaign in Illinois, Washington, Oregon, and California, where the Democrats are confident and the 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 L. 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 in truth there hasn't been much of a presidential campaign in Mississippi for most of its history. What's happening here is Mississippi normal, but that doesn't mean it's unimportant or unremarkable. It is quite the opposite.

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

That Democratic dominance was deep, but it wasn't permanent, and for the last eight consecutive elections -- between the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Barack 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 Solid South, and by that they meant a South that was solidly and relentlessly Democratic. Republicans here didn't even select a gubernatorial candidate for the 80 years leading up to 1963, and it took until 1991, only two decades ago, 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, and he came only because he vowed to campaign in every state. Reagan came immediately after his 1980 nomination, attending the Neshoba County Fair and stirring controversy by using the phrase "states rights" in the very 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 while 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 Nixon's Southern Strategy capitalizing on uneasiness about the Democratic Party -- but now the conversion is complete, and the Republicans' domination is complete as well.

"We used to campaign on creating a two-party system here in Mississippi," says Clarke Reed, the second GOP state chair in modern times and regarded as the founding father of the modern GOP here. "We're not so sure anymore about a two-party system now that it's a one-party state and we're the one party."

So dominant are the Republicans that Mr. Reed and former Gov. Haley Barbour, a onetime GOP national party chairman, have been asked to concentrate their political activities outside of Mississippi. "It's hard," Mr. Reed says, "to convince people we Republicans have a problem in Mississippi."

They don't. The Democrats held the governor's chair for 116 consecutive years, contributing Theodore G. Bilbo and Ross R. Barnett to the dishonor roll of segregation. The Democrats also held both Senate seats for 98 consecutive years, which is why American history remembers James O. Eastland and John C. Stennis. But Republicans have held both seats since 1989, which is why mammoth buildings at Ole Miss are named for Sen. Thad Cochran and former Sen. Trent Lott.

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.

davidshribman

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.


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