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Last week, 18-year-old Christopher Berry, who is black, stood in line for an hour at a suburban Atlanta polling place to cast his very first ballot. He voted for President Obama because, he said, “I really like his stance on health care (and) I feel like he is a president for all the people of the United States.”

Berry is emblematic of the new face of America, a browner electorate that neither Mitt Romney nor the Republican establishment believed was significant. They thought that relying on white voters alone would be enough to propel Romney to victory.

Though the U.S. Census, demographers and, in particular, Obama’s campaign strategists knew that the percentage of black and brown citizens is larger in every election cycle, the Republican establishment apparently did not. Or, if it did, its wise men — and I use that term advisedly — did not believe black and Latino citizens would bother to vote in substantial numbers. (Of course, Republican state legislatures had gone to great lengths to make voting as difficult as possible in several states.) Denial and disrespect can extract a steep price.

Unfortunately, the Republican Party is still in denial. Its leading lights have seized on comprehensive immigration reform as the ticket to courting Latino voters, whom they have succeeded in alienating. Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity, a barometer of right-wing sentiment, claims to have “evolved” on immigration reform and now supports a path to citizenship for illegal workers.

Evolution or not, that misses the point. Now, it’s true that the Republican Party’s intransigence on immigration reform has been costly. And Romney dutifully channeled the hostility that the GOP base holds toward illegal immigrants during the primaries.

But the Republican Party has a much bigger problem than merely immigration reform: For decades now, it has built its presidential election campaigns on a raw antagonism toward people of color. It relies on sending signals that telegraph disrespect toward those citizens — especially blacks and Latinos — to racially antagonistic whites. It’s called the “Southern strategy,” and the modern GOP, which has its base in the Deep South, took it all over the country.

You need look no further than Romney’s ads on welfare reform, in which he claimed that Obama would end the work requirement for welfare recipients. Romney’s campaign kept running the ads even after several fact-checkers pointed out that they were lies.

Why? Several Republican strategists said at the time that the ads worked with a key GOP demographic: racially resentful whites. As many political scientists have pointed out, “welfare” has been code for black people for decades. Romney — whose campaign declared that it would not be ruled by fact-checkers or, by extension, facts — had no problem telling lies that suggested Obama was handing out government largess to “takers,” in right-wing lingo.

Here’s the problem for the GOP: For much of the country, that “takers” vs. “makers” nonsense doesn’t sell. Instead, it alienates progressives and moderates. Black and brown voters, as well as many younger whites, know that any of us might need government assistance from time to time. They want those benefits available.

Indeed, they know that the “47 percent” about whom Romney and much of the GOP has been so dismissive is largely white.

It’s only inside the paranoid and racially resentful bubble of Fox News viewers that the 47 percent comprises just people of color. (As reality-based conservative David Frum has pointed out, white Americans — outside of Romney campaign headquarters, that is — tend to overestimate the numbers of black and brown Americans and believe we are a large enough group to account for all those “takers.”)

Until the Republican Party can give up its 50-year addiction to the Southern strategy, it will not attract a broad base of support. But the GOP has not yet admitted its addiction.

Last week, right-wing pundit Erick Erickson wrote, “Demography is only destiny when you [sic] party is obsessed with race as the Democrats are.” So if that represents the consensus among conservatives, denial and disrespect will continue to extract a steep price.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

Photo credit: AP/Michael Conroy, File

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