01/19/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

Why the GOP Presidential Candidates Talk Race (in Code)

South Carolina Democratic Congressman James Clyburn lambasted the GOP presidential candidates for talking race in code. There's plenty of ammunition for the attack with the stream of race-tinged references Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney made to food stamps, welfare, work ethics, and an entitlement society. Then there are the racially-loaded newsletters from Ron Paul that resurfaced. The candidates when challenged have ducked, dodged, and denied any racial intent, or in the case of Paul's newsletter, that he even penned them. The denials seem plausible only because the GOP presidential candidates have made it a practiced art of saying absolutely nothing on the campaign trail about discrimination, poverty, and the gaping racial health care and educational disparities. They are even muter in denouncing the non-stop barrage of racist taunts, digs, slurs, depictions of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by some Tea Party leaders and GOP elected officials.

GOP presidential candidates for the past three decades have crunched the voter numbers and the stats. The GOP base is the white South and the Heartland. They deliver more than one-third of the electoral votes needed to bag the White House. These are the also the voters that GOP presidents and aspiring presidents, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. George W. Bush, and John McCain and legions of GOP governors, senators and congresspersons, banked on for victory and to seize and maintain regional and national political dominance. They haven't disappointed them. Racial code talk has been a key weapon in the GOP's campaign arsenal. It has been the spark to reignite the GOP's traditional conservative, lower income, white male loyalists.

The final presidential vote in 2008 gave ample warning of the potency of the GOP's conservative white constituency when aroused. While Obama made a major breakthrough in winning a significant percent of votes from white independents and young white voters, McCain still won a majority of their vote. Overall, Obama garnered slightly more than 40 percent of the white male vote. Among Southern and Heartland America white male voters, Obama made almost no impact. In South Carolina and other Deep South states the vote was even more lopsided among white voters against Obama. The only thing that even made Obama's showing respectable in those states was the record turnout and percentage of black votes that he got. They were all Democratic votes.

McCain would not have been as competitive as he was during campaign 2008 without the bail out from white male voters. Much has been made since then that they are a dwindling percent of the electorate, and that Hispanic, Asian, black, young, and women voters will permanently tip the balance of political power to the Democrats in coming national elections. Blue collar white voters have shrunk from more than half of the nation's voters to less than forty percent. The assumption based solely on this slide and the increased minority population numbers and regional demographic changes is that the GOP's white vote strategy is doomed to fail. This ignores three political facts. Elections are usually won by candidates with a solid and impassioned core of bloc voters. White males, particularly older white males, vote consistently and faithfully. And they voted in a far greater percentage than Hispanics and blacks.

The 2010 mid-term elections were political textbook proof of that. The GOP snatched back the House with a deft play on the long favored racial code themes of tax and spend Democrats, wasteful big government, run-away deficit spending on entitlement programs, and their full blown assaults on so-called Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security programs, and labor unions. The major recipients of these programs are and have always been white seniors, retirees, women, and children, and white workers. But these programs have been artfully sold to many Americans as handouts to lazy, undeserving blacks, Hispanics and minorities.

Then there are the always thorny social issues. They slid off the nation's radar scope the past few years mostly because the laser preoccupation and worry of most Americans has been over jobs and the economy. But they didn't completely disappear as potentially inflammatory issues. GOP leaders have long known that blue collar white male voters can be easily aroused to vote and shout loudly on the emotional wedge issues: abortion, family values, anti-gay marriage and prayer. Rick Santorum and, before her failed candidacy fell apart, Michele Bachmann, have done everything they can to play the family values card to fire up ultra-conservatives and Christian evangelicals.

The GOP's traditional path to the White House has been to stoke the fears of whites over big government and minority encroachment. It failed in 2008 only because of the rage and disgust of legions of white voters at Bush's horribly failed and flawed domestic and war policies, and the GOP's sorry record of scandals, and ineptness. This was not a radical and permanent sea change in overall white voter sentiment about the GOP as the 2010 mid-term elections showed.
The ultimate end game of the GOP presidential contenders is to make Obama a one-term president. If they have to speak in racial code terms to do it, they'll do it. It worked too well in the past for them not too.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.