It worked for Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in 1968, redrawing the electoral map. The once-solidly Democratic South, which supported John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, deserted Hubert Humphrey.
It worked in Massachusetts, where, in 1978, a candidate trained by the legendary hardball player Dick Morris defeated the popular incumbent, Michael Dukakis, by labeling him soft on crime.
It worked again 10 years later, in 1988, when George H.W. Bush campaign manager the late Lee Atwater (then a partner of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone) pledged to make a black convict by the name of William Horton (renamed Willie by the Bush folks), who had raped a white woman while on a weekend furlough program, into Dukakis' running mate.
Law and order has always had racial connotations. The South went Republican in large part because of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, championed by Lyndon Johnson and built on action by Congress, the president and the Supreme Court. Notably, the only elections Democrats won between 1968 and 2008 were those in which the candidate was himself a Southerner.
I remember the delegate who pulled me aside in 1988 and told me that people where he came from knew that only two things come from Massachusetts, liberals and lobsters, and that by October, people in the South were going to realize my candidate was not a lobster.
Certainly not. The numbers I looked at in 1988 were troubling for many reasons, among them the fact that the more Black voters there were in Southern states, the worse the prospects were for a Democratic win. White men were the topic of endless meetings; white men were the reason candidates in those days visited tank factories (ideally, without riding on a tank with their helmet fastened) and touted their love of hunting.
It was in this context that Bill Clinton, who managed to break the losing streak, supported a crime bill that, in retrospect, went too far. He was not alone: Across the country, Democrats supported three-strikes laws that were poorly conceived and drafted lest the Democrats be considered soft on crime. "No more Willie Hortons" was the lesson that a generation of Democrats could never forget. In the 1990s, the death penalty was still an issue that could cost Democrats dearly. Notably, Clinton, unlike Dukakis, supported the death penalty in appropriate circumstances. Dukakis did not.
Neither did Barack Obama. I like to think he broke the stranglehold that Willie Horton had on Democrats running for office, such that when then-President Donald Trump polished off the old talking points on crime last year, painting a picture of a national riven with urban riots in ads and on Fox News, it didn't work. Part of the reason it didn't work was that the cities were not on fire on any of the other networks, or from the window of your car. The other part is the changing electorate, combined with the efforts of Stacey Abrams in Georgia and folks like her across the South, efforts that are far more likely to bear fruit with the new electorate.
And so it was in New Mexico on Tuesday. In a special election to fill the seat left vacant by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Democrat Melanie Stansbury handily defeated state Sen. Mark Moores, who ran a single-issue campaign reminiscent of those in the 1980s. He attacked Stansbury as "soft on crime" because of her support of a little-known bill aimed at redressing racism in the criminal justice system. In virtually every appearance, he focused on the fact that the murder rate in Albuquerque has doubled in the last year.
Violent crime has been going up across America. Democrats poured stars and cash into the special election, fearing that if Moores' approach worked in a Democratic-leaning district, we would see it in every competitive House race in the country.
That's the really big news out of New Mexico. Law and order didn't work. Criticisms of being soft on crime didn't work. Melanie Stansbury was in middle school when Willie Horton dominated American politics. He doesn't dominate politics anymore.
Susan Estrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.