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New 'Landslide' episode looks at how today’s GOP gained its core group of voters

Former president Donald Trump owed his win this past weekend in the South Carolina primary over former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley to the Republican Party base. Exit polls showed Trump appealed more to the most conservative voters, white men, evangelicals and voters without college degrees.

All of those groups represent core voters within today’s Republican Party. But only a few decades ago they were a minority in the GOP.

The new narrative podcast "Landslide," which WFAE is a partner on, examines the shift within the GOP that led to today’s party. The latest episode is out today. Creator and host Ben Bradford is here to discuss more about how that happened.

Marshall Terry: So, Ben, take us back to 1976. Some of these same groups of voters that just delivered Trump his win in South Carolina were gaining more influence within the Republican Party. How was that viewed at the time?

Ben Bradford: The idea of conservatives taking control of the Republican Party, a lot of them from the kinds of demographics you mentioned, was viewed as a disaster. A popular consensus — and this is not an exaggeration — was that it would be the party’s death knell.

Terry: Ben, unpack why this was the view.

Bradford: Well, you have to understand there was a growing bloc of conservatives in the Republican Party and they wanted to nominate a conservative presidential candidate. But the general consensus of the time was that ideological candidates could not win in American politics. And there was good reason to think that. There were two recent examples. In 1964, the conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater had gotten the Republican nomination. And he got crushed by Lyndon Johnson. And then in 1972, the liberal Sen. George McGovern had gotten the Democratic nomination. And he got crushed by Richard Nixon. So everyone kind of thinks, OK, well this is what happens when a hard-right or hard-left candidate runs a hard-right or hard-left campaign.

Terry: You said conservatives were a growing faction. Why was that?

Bradford: In large part, that was because Goldwater and then Nixon had made a key part of their campaign strategies luring over conservative Democrats, especially in the South, who opposed civil rights.

Terry: You’re talking about what’s called the Southern Strategy.

Bradford: That’s right. And Nixon did this very successfully, where he won over a lot of segregationist Democrats — but he still kept more centrist voters at the same time. But then, you have Watergate. Nixon is out. A lot of those centrist Republicans are thinking of packing their bags from the party, too. And that leaves conservatives — a lot of them from the kinds of demographics that form the core of today’s GOP — and now they’re a much bigger part of the base. It gives them more power, and this sort of power struggle ensues within the party. And I should say conservatives are still, at this point, not a majority — within the party or within the country. They need to convince others. And a big part of what we’re looking at in this episode is how their preferred candidate, Ronald Reagan, starts doing that.

"Landslide" is produced by NuanceTales in partnership with WFAE, and is part of the NPR Network. Episodes come out weekly and available wherever you get your podcasts.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.