Mississippi voters championed anti-establishment 25 years ago

Published 10:50 am Tuesday, November 15, 2016

America has chosen a path charted by Mississippi in 1991.

It was 25 years ago that insider Gov. Ray Mabus was seeking a second term. His only challenge came from outsider federal construction contractor Kirk Fordice.

Fordice had served on the election commission in Vicksburg, his home, but had never sought a city, countywide, state or federal elective office.

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Mabus had served on the staff of Gov. William Winter and had been elected statewide twice, first as auditor and, in 1987, to become the youngest governor in the nation.

President-elect Donald Trump, like Fordice, had dabbled in politics, but never been on a ballot.

Hillary Clinton, like Mabus, had oodles of experience — senator from New York and member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

In 1991, media consensus was there was no way for Fordice to win. Mabus had all the courthouse connections. Mabus had run and won. Mabus outspent Fordice $7 to $1. There had been a couple of dust-ups during the sitting governor’s first term, but no scandals. He didn’t have Clinton’s “high negatives.” Further, Fordice was a Republican and Mississippi had not elected a Republican since Adelbert Ames in 1874. Almost every newspaper in Mississippi endorsed Mabus.

Mabus, from Ackerman, appeared a bit downcast in the hours before polls opened. That’s when reporters realized what was about to happen. Even back then, it seems, inside polling was more accurate than polls commissioned by the media.

There are some variations in the sagas of Fordice-Mabus and Trump-Clinton. The most notable is that while most Mississippi lawmakers were old-school conservatives back then, they were also Democrats.

Trump is to enter with Republican majorities in both federal chambers, but as has been well-documented, not every Republican is a Trump Republican.

Fordice entered office with a “starve the beast” philosophy against government expansion and vetoed an increase in the state’s sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent. The Legislature quickly overrode that veto.

Trump is not cut from the same arch-conservative cloth as Fordice. Witness Trump’s statement that gay marriage is “done and settled.”

Fordice was also a tough on crime guy and the Legislature did pass his Truth In Sentencing Act from which lawmakers, for budgetary and common sense reasons, have been retreating since.

President-elect Trump does have the full-throated support of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. State Republicans in federal office have been more circumspect. That includes senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran plus three of the four U.S. House members, Trent Kelly, Steven Palazzo and Gregg Harper. Former Gov. Haley Barbour — a big-time national GOP operative for decades — was in open verbal warfare with Trump before concluding that at least he was better than Clinton.

There are some interesting aspects to Mississippi’s vote. While national commentaries were on the urban-rural vote split, again in Mississippi the split mirrored the racial ratio. Non-Hispanic whites are 58 percent of Mississippi’s population and Trump received 58 percent of the state’s vote. African-Americans are 37 percent of the state’s population and Clinton received 40 percent of the state’s vote.

There were wide county-to-county ranges with Clinton polling as low as 12 percent and 18 percent in mostly white Tishomingo and Alcorn counties and as high as 83 percent and 85 percent in mostly black Holmes and Claiborne counties.

There was little-to-no chance she would earn Mississippi’s six electoral votes in any event, but Clinton received 74,000 fewer votes than President Obama did four years ago and 100,000 fewer than Obama eight years ago.

The hard-core Democratic vote was just not there for Clinton.

Four and eight years ago, Mitt Romney and John McCain both got more Mississippi votes than Trump polled. Trump’s percentage was higher as a result of fewer votes cast.

Headlines screamed that the world was highly alarmed by Trump’s win. The experts who predicted his victory could fit in a phone booth (remember those?) just as could the experts who didn’t think Fordice had a chance of winning (when phone booths still existed) a quarter-century ago.

Will the parallels continue?

Mississippians in 1991 wanted a vastly different direction and opted for an aggressive outsider to shake things up.

Americans in 2016 wanted a person of action to drain the swamp. The imaginary ad read: Needed: President of the United States; no experience necessary.

Fordice found governing very different and far more challenging than running a construction company. Frustrating, too. His lack of experience thwarted him time and again.

The swamp fights back. Trump has lost some swagger. He seems to see it’s not a game anymore.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.