Trump’s Southern strategy relies heavily on populism

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Trump’s Southern strategy relies heavily on populism

AJC on the trail

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will be closely tracking the 2016 presidential campaign all across the country, with a special emphasis on the South. To see past stories, go to MyAJC.com.

If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination for president, he will likely have to do it by storming across the South.

The brash billionaire’s support has softened in Iowa, and a skirmish in New Hampshire with an influential conservative newspaper could scramble the race. But in South Carolina, Trump remains rock solid — signaling a strength that would serve him well when voters in Southern states begin to vote in less than two months.

He’s championing a strategy that melds a blend of economic populism with blunt rhetoric that resonates with voters across the region. Polls show him maintaining commanding leads in South Carolina, where Republicans will cast ballots on Feb. 20, as well as Georgia and other states that vote in the so-called “SEC primary” on March 1.

Trump is relying on the region like never before. Polls show him trailing Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa, where voters will caucus on Feb. 1. In New Hampshire, which holds its primary about a week later, establishment candidates are circling Trump after the publisher of the state’s largest newspaper predicted voters there were too smart to elect him.

Setbacks in either of those two states could threaten his campaign. But South Carolina, and the rest of the South, remain a bastion of support for Trump, and a showdown with Cruz — who sees the region and its conservative evangelical base as his firewall — seems inevitable.

While Iowa and New Hampshire will provide GOP victors there bragging rights and momentum, South Carolina offers another benefit that could prove more valuable in the long haul: delegates. The state has nearly as many as the other two states combined, and a large number of South Carolina’s delegates are awarded winner-take-all to the statewide victor.

Populist appeal in the Palmetto State

Huge crowds await Trump in places such as Hilton Head, where both blue-collar workers and well-heeled executives expressed a mutual disdain for Washington policies. Voters in both camps say his populist promises, such as his vow to rebuild manufacturing with a 35 percent tax on cars made in Mexico, struck a chord.

“He already owns this island. People here are so disgusted with the Republican field. They are impotent,” said Staunton Oppenheimer, a retiree who lives on Hilton Head. “He’ll win South Carolina going away. And that’s because he says things that people here are thinking themselves. And people like me are so disgusted that they are listening.”

The South has a storied history of embracing populists. Think Huey Long in Louisiana. Herman Talmadge and Tom Watson in Georgia. Experts say Trump — a billionaire real estate developer from New York — has somehow tapped into that same vein of anti-establishment grass-roots animus.

It’s a raw emotional appeal that even political satirist-turned-talk show host Stephen Colbert has recognized.

“There’s a populism to Trump that I found very appealing,” Colbert told CBS. “The party elders would like him to go away, but the people have decided that he is not going to.”

There’s no question that Trump’s rhetoric has hit a nerve. At a rally last week that attracted more than 2,000 people, and an additional 3,000 awaiting a glimpse of the candidate in the balmy weather outside, he drew raucous applause when he made vast promises — with little details to back them up.

Among his vows was to “save the Second Amendment,” defeat the Islamic State, reverse the Affordable Care Act and build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico to keep out illegal immigrants.

“If we keep going like this, we’re not going to have a country,” Trump said. “We have a situation that’s out of control. Our country is a dumping ground for the rest of the world. We’re laughed at by the rest of the world.”

Fertile ground for both Cruz, Trump

Currently, his biggest obstacle in the region is Cruz, who has made the South the cornerstone of his campaign. Some 565 delegates — out of a minimum 1,236 needed for the nomination — are up for grabs on March 1. That includes 155 from Cruz’s home state of Texas — and his supporters are confident they have the momentum and organization to undercut Trump’s formidable lead in the polls.

“A lot of people are looking for change. And they’ll have to be willing to take a risk on someone who doesn’t have the traditional political background,” said Wanda Holland, a substitute teacher from Guyton, Ga., who is split between Cruz and Trump. “And that’s what we love about Trump. He’s got the business background. And he’s not in bed with lobbyists.”

There’s no question that South Carolina — and the South generally — delight in a certain measure of defiance.

In 2012, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich used the state to battle back from political oblivion. He portrayed his comeback win in South Carolina as a blow to the political “elites.” Trump is pushing that same message as he urges supporters in early-voting states to defy the establishment. But while Gingrich flamed out, Trump’s backers say he has the money and the message for the long haul.

“We’re going to be strong in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other states that start it out,” Trump campaign manager Corey ­Lewandowski recently told The Washington Post. “Then comes the South. That’s the path to the nomination.”

Critics allege that Trump has appealed to some voters by pushing a racially charged agenda. He has railed against Mexicans entering the country by labeling many of them drug dealers and rapists, has tweeted suspect crime statistics on the rate at which blacks murder whites, and called for a ban to Muslims entering the country.

‘Slapped in the face too long’

Some polls show that much of Trump’s Southern support comes from GOP primary voters who live in counties with large black and Hispanic populations. Voters from those same rural areas helped fuel the success of populist politicians such as Eugene and Herman Talmadge in the last century, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.

“Whites who were strong supporters of someone like Gene Talmadge were threatened by this force they saw out there that they wanted to control,” said Bullock, an author of several books on Southern politics. “And what we know about Trump supporters is they also may feel threatened by forces they don’t control. They aren’t particularly educated. They don’t have lots of money. And here comes someone who has all the answers.”

Ronnie Myers, a white voter who lives near Augusta, has a different way of explaining it. He said Trump has captured the hearts of a segment of voters who are otherwise too disgusted to cast ballots.

He ticked off the reasons why he and others are so upset: The rise of the Islamic State. The decline of America’s international reputation. Fears of immigrants taking more jobs. And an economy that feels like it’s still stuck in neutral.

“We’ve been slapped in the face too long. And now American voters are speaking out. They’re angry that they’re becoming second-class citizens in their own country,” Myers said. “That’s why Trump will win it.”

That’s when he pointed to his wife, Linda, as an example.

“I’m sad to say I’ve never voted before. And I’m 63 years old,” she said. “But that’s about to change. My first vote will be for Donald Trump because I believe what he stands for.”

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