Phillips, Kevin Price

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PHILLIPS, Kevin Price

(b. 30 November 1940 in New York City), Republican political strategist, commentator, and writer who identified a new Republican majority in the late 1960s, propelling Richard M. Nixon to presidential victories in 1968 and 1972.

Phillips was born into a middle-class family that valued education and public service. His father, William Edward Phillips, was a career civil servant, working at one time as the chief executive officer of the New York State Liquor Commission. His father was raised a Catholic, but his mother, Dorothy Price, was a Protestant. Phillips said his own religion was "reading the Sunday papers." An intelligent and precocious youth, Phillips became interested in politics at an early age, supporting Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election even though he was only eleven. At fifteen he was the chairman of the Bronx Youth Committee for Eisenhower and walked the streets campaigning for his reelection in 1956.

Phillips's parents sent him to the Bronx High School of Science, where he became a National Merit Scholar. At age sixteen Phillips entered Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, as a political science major. He spent his junior year studying history and economic history at the University of Edinburgh. Bored with Colgate when he returned from Scotland, he arranged to spend half his senior year in Washington, D.C., in a special academic project. He graduated in 1961 with a list of honors and joined the staff of the Republican U.S. Representative Paul Fino, becoming the youngest legislative assistant in the House of Representatives at the age of twenty. In between working in Washington, Phillips finished a J.D. from Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1964, not because he had any particular affinity for law, but because he believed a law degree from Harvard would further his political career.

Phillips worked his way up to an administrative aide to Fino, but left his office in 1968. In September 1968 he married Martha Henderson, the Republican staff director of the U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee; they had two sons. The lanky, bespectacled, dark-haired Phillips had used his time in Washington to make himself into an expert in ethnicity and voting patterns. "You could ask me about any congressional district in the country," Phillips said, "and I could tell you its ethnic composition, its voting history, and the issues that would appeal to its electorate." Putting his expertise into writing, in late 1967 Phillips finished the first draft of his influential book, The Emerging Republican Majority. Phillips argued that the Republican Party should present a conservative image in order to capture the votes of traditional Democratic strongholds in what he perceived as "battlegrounds." In essence, Phillips believed that traditional Democrats were upset with the liberalism of their party, and the Republican Party had a golden opportunity to sway these voters away from the Democrats.

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the new Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson promised a "Great Society" for everyone in the United States. The 1964 election pitted the liberal Johnson against the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater from Arizona. Goldwater was seen as too reactionary for many Americans, attacking civil rights legislation and government expansion, and even talking about using nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War. Johnson won the election with more than 61 percent of the popular vote, solidifying the triumph of liberalism. Despite Johnson's overwhelming victory, Goldwater's message did resonate with some voters, and he won a few southern states, a feat Republican candidates were seldom able to achieve. This accomplishment was not lost on Phillips, and he identified the South as a dominant conservative pool ready to be tapped. As Phillips saw it, the upper South had concerns that the Republican Party was able to address.

As Johnson committed combat troops to Vietnam in 1965, and urban riots lit up the night skies throughout the North, many Americans began to question whether liberalism and the Democratic Party were indeed working in their best interests. Traditional Democratic voters who were veterans, labor union members, ethnic Catholics, and hardworking, law-abiding citizens viewed Johnson's programs as helping only the few. Phillips correctly identified that these voters felt marginalized by the Great Society. As a result, building on Goldwater's momentum, the 1966 mid-term elections witnessed a white backlash against the Democrats, and voters sent more Republicans to the House, destroying Johnson's liberal majority.

Richard M. Nixon was one Republican politician who benefited from this slowly growing conservative movement. After Goldwater's loss in 1964, Nixon began to court conservative southern Republicans such as South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond to build on Goldwater's success in the South, promising not to continue civil rights reforms if elected. This position fit with what Phillips believed: that the South, traditionally Democratic from the days of redemption during Reconstruction, was fed up with the Democratic Party and the liberalism that they felt helped African Americans, protected criminals, and bowed to special interests and the elite eastern establishment.

Sections of Phillips's book were circulated through Nixon's presidential campaign, and Nixon's chief campaign manager asked Phillips to join the team in 1968 as the chief political and voting patterns strategist. When Nixon won the 1968 election, Phillips's proclamation of a new Republican majority was validated. As such, his publisher finally agreed to publish The Emerging Republican Majority in 1969. Phillips's work on Nixon's campaign and the success of his book launched him as one of the country's foremost political forecasters and analysts. In 1969 he was appointed as the special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell for sixteen months. He resigned in April 1970 to become a syndicated newspaper columnist.

Ironically, many Republicans distanced themselves from Phillips, calling him a "quack" and dismissing his book as "baloney." Even Nixon's administration disowned him. These criticisms were handed down in part because of the candidness of his message. Saying the Republican Party aimed to become the major party by campaigning against African Americans, Latinos, and other marginalized groups that the Democratic Party had courted was not politically wise.

After 1970 Phillips continued to write influential books, most dealing with how politics, parties, and money interrelate. His works include Electoral Reform and Voter Participation (1975); The Politics of the Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath (1990), a 1991 National Book Critics Circle nominee; Arrogant Capital (1995); and Wealth and Democracy (2002). He contributed regularly to major national newspapers and served as a commentator for the Columbia Broadcasting System and National Public Radio. In 1971 he became the president of the American Political Research Corporation. He also served as the editor and publisher of The American Political Report.

Phillips's greatest contribution was perhaps his ability to assess changing political situations at the grass roots level and forecast those trends into larger national movements. He was able to identify a major shift in political alignments that placed Republicans in the forefront for more than twenty years. With The Emerging Republican Majority and Phillips's accurate strategies that identified this new majority, Nixon was able to attract three major groups away from the Democratic Party—urban ethnic voters, blue-collar working classes, and southern whites—in order to build a new Republican coalition that lasted through the remainder of the century.

James Boyd, "It's All in the Charts," New York Times (17 May 1970), reviews Phillips's The Emerging Republican Majority and offers biographical information on the young Phillips.

Valerie Adams

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