Southern strategy

Southern strategy

In American politics, the Southern strategy refers to a Republican method of carrying Southern states in the latter decades of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st century by exploiting racism among white voters.


Although the phrase "Southern strategy" is often attributed to Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips, he did not originate it,cite news|title=To Preserve the Two-Party System|last=Javits|first=Jacob K.|date=October 27, 1963|publisher=The New York Times|accessdate=2008-08-02] but merely popularized it.cite book|last=Phillips|first=Kevin|title=The Emerging Republican Majority|publisher=Arlington House|location=New York|date=1969|accessdate=2008-08-02|isbn=0870000586 |oclc=18063] In an interview included in a 1970 "New York Times" article, he touched on its essence: :From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.cite news|title=Nixon's Southern strategy: 'It's All in the Charts'|last=Boyd|first=James |date=May 17, 1970|publisher=The New York Times|pages=215|accessdate=2008-08-02]

While Phillips was concerned with polarizing ethnic voting in general, and not just with winning the white South, this was by far the biggest prize yielded by his approach. Its success began at the presidential level, gradually trickling down to statewide offices, the Senate and House, as legacy segregationist Democrats retired or switched to the GOP. The strategy suffered a brief apparent reversal following Watergate, with broad support for the Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. But with Ronald Reagan kicking off his 1980 Republican presidential campaign proclaiming support for "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964's Freedom Summer, it appeared the Republican Party was going to build on the Southern Strategy again. Although another Southern Democrat Bill Clinton was twice elected President, winning a handful of Southern states in 1992 and 1996, he won more votes outside the South and could have won without carrying any Southern state.

From 1948 to 1984 the Southern states, traditionally a stronghold for the Democrats, became key swing states, providing the popular vote margins in the 1960, 1968 and 1976 elections. During this era, several Republican candidates expressed support for states' rights, which was a signal of opposition to federal enforcement of civil rights for blacks and intervention on their behalf, including passage of legislation to protect the franchise.cite book|last=Branch|first=Taylor|title=Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65|publisher=Simon & Schuster|location=New York|date=1999|pages=242|accessdate=2008-08-02|isbn=0684808196 |oclc=37909869]

Some have argued that this phenomenon had more to do with the economics than it had to do with race. In "The End of Southern Exceptionalism", political scientists Richard Johnston of the University of Pennsylvania and Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin wrote that the Republicans' gains in the South corresponded to the growth of the upper middle class in that region. This group felt that their economic interests were better served by the Republicans than the Democrats. According to Johnston and Shafer, working-class white voters in the South continued to vote for Democrats until the 1990s. In summary, Shafer told "The New York Times", " [whites] voted by their economic preferences, not racial preferences".cite news|url=|title=The Myth of 'the Southern Strategy'|last=Risen|first=Clay|date=2006-12-10|publisher=The New York Times|accessdate=2008-08-02] Many Republican political campaign operatives, such as Ken Mehlman who openly discussed how Republicans exploit racial tension for Republican electoral benefit, disagree with this assessment.cite news|url=|title=GOP Plans More Outreach to Blacks, Mehlman Says|last=Fletcher|first=Michael A.|date=2005-08-07|publisher=Washington Post|pages=A05|accessdate=2008-08-02]

In recent years, the term "Southern strategy" has been used in a more general sense, in which cultural themes are used in an election — primarily but not exclusively in the American South. In the past, issues such as busing, or states' rights appealed to white angst about integration. Today, appeals to conservative values name cultural issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and religion.

Disfranchisement and the Solid South

After the American Civil War, Southern states gained additional seats in the House of Representatives and representation in the Electoral College because freed slaves were granted full citizenship and suffrage. Southern white resentment stemming from the Civil War and the Republican Party’s policy of Reconstruction kept most southern whites in the Democratic Party, but the Republicans could compete in the South with a coalition of freedmen, Unionists and highland whites.

Rising intimidation and violence by white paramilitary groups such as the White League and Red Shirts during the mid to late-1870s contributed to turning out Republican officeholders and suppressing the black vote. After the North agreed to withdraw federal troops under the Compromise of 1877, white Democrats used a variety of tactics to reduce voting by African Americans and poor whites. In the 1880s they began to pass legislation making election processes more complicated.

From 1890 to 1908, the white Democratic legislatures in every Southern state enacted new constitutions or amendments with provisions to disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites. Provisions required complicated processes for poll taxes, residency, literacy tests and other requirements which were subjectively applied against blacks and poor whites. As blacks lost their vote, the Republican Party lost its ability to effectively compete.cite book|last=Perman|first=Michael|title=Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908|publisher=University of North Carolina Press|location=Chapel Hill, NC|date=2001|chapter=Introduction|accessdate=2008-08-02|isbn=080782593X |oclc=44131788] There was a dramatic drop in voter turnout as these measures took effect and continued in Texas and across the South.cite web|url=|title=Turnout for Presidential and Midterm Elections|work=Politics: Historical Barriers to Voting|publisher=University of Texas|accessdate=2008-08-02]

The South became solidly white Democratic until past the middle of the 20th century. Effectively, Southern white Democrats controlled all the votes of the expanded population by which Congressional apportionment was figured. Many of their representatives achieved powerful positions of seniority in Congress, giving them control of chairmanships of Congressional committees. African Americans could not elect one person to represent their interests and filled no local elected offices,Fact|date=August 2008 where government was closest to the people. Because they could not be voters, they were also prevented from being jurors and serving in local offices. Services and institutions for them in the segregated South were chronically underfunded.

During this period, Republicans held only a few House seats from the South. Between 1880 and 1904, Republican presidential candidates in the South received between 35 and 40 percent of that section's vote (except in 1892, when the 16 percent for the Populists knocked Republicans down to 25 percent). From 1904 to 1948, Republicans received more than 30 percent of the section's votes only in the 1920 (35.2 percent, carrying Tennessee) and 1928 elections (47.7 percent, carrying five states). The only important political role of the South in presidential elections came in the 1912 election, when it provided the delegates to select Taft over Theodore Roosevelt in that year's Republican convention.

During this period, Republicans occasionally supported anti-lynching bills, which were filibustered by Southern Democrats in the Senate, and appointed a few black placeholders. In the 1928 election, the Republican candidate Herbert Hoover rode the issues of prohibition and anti-Catholicism to carry five former Confederate states, with 62 of the 126 electoral votes of the section. After his victory, Hoover attempted to build up the Republican Party of the South, transferring patronage away from blacks and toward the same kind of white Protestant businessmen who made up the core of the Northern Republican Party. With the onset of the Great Depression, which severely impacted the South, Hoover soon became extremely unpopular. The gains of the Republican Party in the South were lost. In the 1932 election, Hoover received only 18.1 percent of the Southern vote for re-election.

WWII and population changes

The subsequent policies of Franklin Roosevelt provided much needed financial help and development welcomed in the South, precluding Republican growth in the region. In the 1948 election, after Truman had desegregated the Army, a group of Southern Democrats known as Dixiecrats split from the Democratic Party in reaction to the inclusion of a strong civil rights plank in the party's platform. This followed a floor fight led by Minneapolis Mayor (and soon-to-be Senator) Hubert Humphrey.

The disaffected Democrats formed the States' Rights Democratic, or Dixiecrat, Party, and nominated Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for president; he won four Southern states. The main plank of the States' Rights Democratic Party was maintaining segregation and Jim Crow in the South. The Dixiecrats, failing to deny the Democrats the presidency in 1948, soon dissolved, but the split lingered. In 1964, Thurmond was one of the first conservative southern Democrats to switch to the Republicans.

In addition to the splits in the Democratic Party, the population movements associated with World War II had a significant effect on the makeup of the South. From 1940-1970, more than 5 million African Americans migrated from the South to the North and West in the second Great Migration. They moved for better jobs, education for their children, and quality of life, including the chance to vote. Starting before WWII, many took jobs in the defense industry in California and major industrial cities of the Midwest.

Changes in industry, growth in universities and the military establishment in turn attracted Northern transplants to the South, and bolstered the base of the Republican Party. In the post-war Presidential campaigns, Republicans did best in the fastest-growing states of the South with the most Northern settlers. In the 1952, 1956 and 1960 elections, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida went Republican all three times, while Louisiana went Republican in 1956, and Texas twice voted for Eisenhower and once for Kennedy. In 1956, Eisenhower received 48.9 percent of the Southern vote, becoming only the second Republican in history (after Grant) to get a plurality of Southern votes.

The states of the Deep South remained loyal to the Democratic Party, which had not officially repudiated segregation. Indeed, the "Yankee transplant" does not explain the Republican rise in the "Deep South" states. Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and North Carolina actually lost population and Congressional seats from the 1950s to the 1970s, while Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana remained static. From the turn of the century, Mississippi's constitution was hostile to industry.

The racial turmoil in the Deep South states during the Civil Rights Movement precluded many businesses from relocating there.Fact|12 Mar 2008|date=March 2008 The "Year of Birmingham" in 1963 highlighted racial issues in Alabama. Through the spring, there were marches and demonstrations to end legal segregation. The Movement's achievements in settlement with the local business class were overshadowed by bombings and murders by the Ku Klux Klan, most notoriously in the deaths of four girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.cite book|last=McWhorter|first=Diane|title=Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution|publisher=Simon & Schuster|location=New York|date=2001|accessdate=2008-08-02|isbn=0684807475 |oclc=45376386]

After George Wallace was elected as Governor of Alabama, he helped link the concept of states' rights and segregation, both in speeches and by creating crises to provoke Federal intervention. He opposed integration at the University of Alabama, and collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan in disrupting court-ordered integration of public schools in Birmingham in 1963.

Many of the so-called states' rights Democrats were attracted to the 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Goldwater was notably more conservative than previous Republican nominees, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower. Goldwater's principal opponent in the primary election, Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, was widely seen as representing the more moderate (and pro-Civil Rights), Northern wing of the party (see Rockefeller Republican, Goldwater Republican). Rockefeller's defeat in the primary is often seen as a turning point towards a more conservative Republican party. It was the beginning of a long decline for moderate and especially liberal Republicans. Goldwater’s primary victory is also seen as a shift of the center of Republican power to the West and South.

In the 1964 presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater ran a conservative campaign, part of which emphasized "states' rights."Fact|date=August 2008 Goldwater's 1964 campaign was a magnet for conservatives. Goldwater broadly opposed strong action by the federal government. Although he had supported all previous federal civil rights legislation, Goldwater made the decision to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [ Civil Rights Act of 1964] ] . His stance was based on his view that the act was an intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of states and, second, that the Act interfered with the rights of private persons to do business, or not, with whomever they chose. In addition, Goldwater's primary delegate slate from the South had no blacks, but was filled instead with white segregationists.

All this appealed to white Southern Democrats, and Goldwater was the first Republican to win the electoral votes of the Deep South states (Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina) since Reconstruction. However, Goldwater's vote on the Civil Rights Act proved devastating to Goldwater’s campaign everywhere outside the South (besides Dixie, Goldwater won only in Arizona, his home state), contributing to his landslide defeat in 1964. A Lyndon B. Johnson ad called "Confessions of a Republican," which ran in the North, associated Goldwater with the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, Johnson’s campaign in the Deep South publicized Goldwater’s full history on civil rights. In the end, Johnson swept the election.

Senator Goldwater’s position was at odds with most of the prominent members of the Republican Party, dominated by so-called Eastern Establishment and Midwestern Progressives. A higher percentage of the Republican Party supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [ Civil Rights Act of 1964] ] than did the Democratic Party, as they had on all previous Civil Rights legislation. The Southern Democrats mostly opposed their Northern Party mates--and their presidents (Kennedy and Johnson) on civil rights issues.

Roots of the Southern strategy

Lyndon Johnson was concerned that his endorsement of Civil Rights legislation would endanger his party in the South, but he believed that it was the morally right thing to do. The national Democratic party supported integration and passage of civil rights legislation to correct injustices. In the election of 1968, Richard Nixon saw the cracks in the Solid South as an opportunity to tap into a group of voters who had long been beyond the reach of the Republican Party.

Against the background of the long Vietnam War, in 1968 social turbulence and volatility continued. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he was the most well-known national leader of the Civil Rights Movement. His death was followed by rioting by despairing African Americans in inner-city areas in major cities throughout the country. King’s policy of non-violence had already been superseded by activities of more radical blacks and by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There were also protests, often violent, against the Vietnam War. The drug subculture caused alarm among many adults.

With the aid of Harry Dent and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who had switched parties in 1964, Richard Nixon ran his 1968 campaign on states' rights and "law and order." Many liberals accused Nixon of pandering to Southern whites, especially with regard to his "states' rights" and "law and order" stands.cite news|title=Negro Leaders See Bias in Call Of Nixon for 'Law and Order'|last=Johnson|first=Thomas A.|date=August 13, 1968|publisher=The New York Times|pages=27|accessdate=2008-08-02]

The independent candidacy of George Wallace, former Democratic governor of Alabama, partially negated the Southern strategy. With a much more explicit attack on integration and black civil rights, Wallace won all of Goldwater's states (except South Carolina), as well as Arkansas and one of North Carolina's electoral votes. Nixon picked up Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, while Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey won only Texas in the South. In the 1972 election, Nixon swept the South, winning more than 70 percent of the popular vote in the Deep South states and Florida, and over 60 percent in all the other states of the former Confederacy.

Despite his appeal to Southern whites, Nixon parlayed a wide perception as a moderate into wins in other states, and he took a solid majority in the electoral college. He was able to appear moderate to most Americans because the Southern strategy referred to integration obliquely through states' rights and busing that were emotionally charged for voters in the South.


As civil rights grew more accepted throughout the nation, basing a general election strategy on appeals to "states' rights" as a naked play against civil rights laws would have resulted in a national backlash. In addition, the idea of "states' rights" was subsumed within a broader meaning than simply a reference to civil rights laws, [Carter, Dan T. "From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994."] eventually encompassing federalism as the means to forestall Federal intervention in the culture wars. Money was found to help support the building and funding of a large number of independent, conservative churches across the South and Midwest which could be expected to support the conservative social agenda. Most successful in this was Roe Messner who has built more than 1,700 churches including several megachurches.

On August 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign with a speech near Philadelphia, Mississippi at the annual Neshoba County Fair. During the speech, Reagan told the crowd, "Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level."cite news|title=Reagan Campaigns at Mississippi Fair; Nominee Tells Crowd of 10,000 He Is Backing States' Rights|last=Kneeland|first=Douglas E.|date=1980-08-04|publisher=The New York Times|pages=A11|accessdate=2008-08-02] He went on to promise to "restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them." Philadelphia was the scene of the June 21, 1964 murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and Reagan's critics alleged that the presidential candidate was signaling a racist message to his audience.cite news|title=Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant|last=Herbert|first=Bob|date=2005-10-06|publisher=The New York Times|pages=24|accessdate=2008-08-02] Reagan's defenders disagree and point out that he spoke to the National Urban League, a civil rights organization, a few days later.cite news|title=History and Calumny|last=Brooks|first=David|date=2007-11-09|publisher=The New York Times|accessdate=2008-08-02]

In addition to presidential campaigns, charges of racism have been made about subsequent Republican campaigns for the House of Representatives and Senate in the South. The Willie Horton commercials used by supporters of George H. W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in the election of 1988 were considered by some, including Jesse Jackson, Lloyd Bentsen, and many newspaper editors, to be racist. The 1990 re-election campaign of Jesse Helms attacked his opponent's alleged support of "racial quotas," most notably through an ad in which a white person's hands are seen crumpling a letter indicating that he was denied a job because of the color of his skin. [Helms' "Hands" campaign ad on YouTube, item KIyewCdXMzk] Some professional academicsWho|date=January 2008 (historians, political scientists, sociologists, culture critics, etc.) and most Democratic Party supportersWho|date=January 2008 argue that support for what conservative acolytes depict as a new "Federalism" in the Republican Party platform is, and always has been, nothing but a code word for the politics of resentment, of which racism provides the fuel.

Bob Herbert, a "New York Times" columnist, reported a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater, published in "Southern Politics in the 1990s" by Prof. Alexander P. Lamis, in which Lee Atwater discussed politics in the South:

:You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

:And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger".

Herbert wrote in the same column, "The truth is that there was very little that was subconscious about the G.O.P.'s relentless appeal to racist whites. Tired of losing elections, it saw an opportunity to renew itself by opening its arms wide to white voters who could never forgive the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights and voting rights for blacks."

In later decades, some analysts made the argument that Southern whites' move to the Republican Party had more to do with whites' voting for their economic interests than racism. Clay Risen wrote in a review of "The End of Southern Exceptionalism", a scholarly work by Richard Johnston and Byron Shafer, "In the postwar era... the South transformed itself from a backward region to an engine of the national economy, giving rise to a sizable new wealthy suburban class. This very busy and perhaps, therefore, distracted class, not surprisingly, began to vote for the party, it perceived, best represented its economic interests: the Republican Party.

Modern appraisal in the Republican party

The Southern Strategy was used as recently as the 2000 election. During this election, a push poll suggested to conservative Republican South Carolina primary voters that primary opponent John McCain had fathered an "illegitimate black child." (In fact, Cindy McCain had adopted a baby from a Bangladeshi orphanage.) McCain was defeated.cite news|url=|title=Anatomy of a Smear Campaign|last=Davis|first=Richard H.|date=2004-03-21|publisher=Boston Globe|accessdate=2008-08-02]

Following the 2004 re-election of President George W. Bush, in which few African Americans voted for Bush and other Republicans, Ken Mehlman, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee and Bush's campaign manager, delivered several speeches at meetings with African-American business, community, and religious leaders in which he apologized for his party's use of the Southern Strategy in the past. Said Mehlman, when asked about the southern strategy that used race as an issue to build GOP dominance in the once Democratic South, Mehlman replied, "Republican candidates often have prospered by ignoring black voters and even by exploiting racial tensions," and, " [B] y the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African-American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."cite news|url=|title=RNC Chief to Say It Was 'Wrong' to Exploit Racial Conflict for Votes|last=Allen|first=Mike|date=2005-07-14|publisher=Washington Post|accessdate=2008-08-02] However, many prominent Republican and conservative commentators denounced Mehlman for his apology, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity among them.cite web|url=|title=Limbaugh blasted Mehlman's renunciation of GOP racial tactics: "Republicans are going to go bend over and grab the ankles"|date=2005-07-14|publisher=Media Matters for America|accessdate=2008-08-02]

In the 2006 campaign for Tennessee's Senate seat, a controversial political advertisement paid for by the Republican National Committee featured a series of characters facetiously offering their support for black Democratic candidate Harold Ford, Jr. One character was a white woman -- wearing a strapless dress which made her appear naked -- who claimed to have met Ford at a Playboy party. At the end of the ad, she requested that Ford call her. Critics accused the RNC of race baiting by playing on negative views of mixed-race relationships.cite news|url=|title=Newsweek|last=Clift|first=Eleanor|date=2006-10-27|accessdate=2008-08-02Dead link|date=May 2008] Ford lost the election.

Use during the 2008 Democratic primary

Pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Roland MartinFact|date=January 2008 have suggested that the campaign of white Senator Hillary Clinton would use a "Southern strategy" to suggest that African-American support in South Carolina for black rival Barack Obama was related to his race and not his individual appeal to voters. Limbaugh said they will be " [g] iving nothing to Obama, blaming it all on racial identity politics, or crediting it for that. You watch. They'll do something." cite web|url=|title=The Clinton Southern Strategy|date=2008-01-22|publisher=Rush Limbaugh|accessdate=2008-08-02] In this view, subsequent primaries would be affected by the introduction of race and follow the pattern of the Southern strategy.

Following Obama's victory in the South Carolina primary on January 26, analysts on CNN described statements made by former President Bill Clinton on behalf of Senator Clinton's campaign as part of Senator Clinton's "Southern strategy". They noted former President Clinton's comparison of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign to those of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988.cite news|title=Coverage of the South Carolina Democratic primary|date=2008-01-26|publisher=CNN|accessdate=2008-08-02] In his interview with George Stephanopoulus, Barack Obama pointed out that Clinton was referring to history more than 20 years old and contended that his campaign and win were different.

ee also

*Bootleggers and Baptists
*Conservative coalition
*Politics of the Southern United States
*Red state vs. blue state divide
*States' rights


Further reading

* [ The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South] , by Joseph A. Aistrup.
* [ The Rise of Southern Republicans] , by Earl Black and Merle Black.
*From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (ISBN 0-8071-2366-8), by Dan T. Carter.
*The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, The Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of Southern Politics (ISBN 0-8071-2597-0), by Dan T. Carter.
*A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (ISBN 0-8078-2819-X), by David L. Chappell.
*The Emerging Republican Majority (ISBN 0-87000-058-6), by Kevin Phillips.
* [ Nixon's Southern strategy 'It's All In the Charts'] by James Boyd, "New York Times", May 17, 1970
* [ RNC Chief to Say It Was 'Wrong' to Exploit Racial Conflict for Votes] by Mike Allen of the "Washington Post"
* [ GOP:'We were wrong' to play racial politics] by Richard Benedetto of "USA TODAY"
* [ Why The GOP's Southern Strategy Ended]
*White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (ISBN 0-691-09260-5) by Kevin M. Kruse.
*Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture (ISBN 0-15-600550-6) by Peter Applebome.

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