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The Solid South?
Southern States
Comment
August 29, 2008

The South, a political power block since 1860 — has been "solid" for one party or another since Reconstruction. JOURNAL guests Earl and Merle Black have written two books on the importance of the South in electoral politics, THE VITAL SOUTH: HOW PRESIDENTS ARE ELECTED and THE RISE OF SOUTHERN REPUBLICANS. In the aftermath of the American Civil War the former Confederate states maintained a cohesive voting pattern nearly a century. It became known as "The Solid South" and was counted in the Democratic column for years. But as times, and party platforms, changed southern politics did too. Now for several decades the South has been solidly in the Republican camp.

Its electoral import is undiminished, as NPR recently noted: "The South contains over 50 percent of the electoral college votes needed to win the presidency. If someone sweeps the South, they will win." There are headlines on the Internet like this one: "The futility of Obama campaigning in the South" from the SOUTHERN POLITICAL REPORT. But Bill Clinton's Southern wins make counting the South as solid less than a sure thing.

Find out more about the South and the presidency below:

THE END OF RECONSTRUCTION

After the Union victory in the Civil War a series of laws were passed in Congress aimed at providing civil rights to recently freed slaves. During the post-war period known as Reconstruction, newly emancipated African American voters voted overwhelmingly for Republican, the party of Lincoln, candidates on both state and national levels. Southern whites voted en masse for the Democrats.

The popular vote in the 1876 election was 4,036,298 for Republican Hayes, or 48% of the total (shown in red) and 4,300,590 for Democrat Tilden or 51% (shown in green). Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina's electoral votes were awarded to Hayes by the Compromise of 1877.

In the election of 1876 Democrat Samuel J. Tilden led Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in popular votes, and 203-165 in the electoral college. However, there were 20 electoral votes in dispute due to fraud and violence in some southern states and eligibility questions in Oregon.

The disputed votes were split leaving a deadlock. The Democratic House and Republican Senate created a fifteen-member electoral commission of ten congressmen and five Supreme Court justices, divided by party, with one independent. The divided conference awarded all the votes to Hayes, prompting a Democratic filibuster.

A compromise was negotiated in which the Republicans would keep the White House and offer more federal aid dollars to the former Confederate states. In addition, the remaining federal troops would leave the South. As the troops left the area, voting and other civil rights protections for African Americans went with them.


THE DIXIECRATS

For the next seventy years the South voted for Democrats. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses and intimidation kept African-American votes to a minimum. Then, in 1948 domestic policy of Harry Truman and the newly announced civil rights plank in the Democratic Party Platform caused a rebellion among southern Democrats. At first discontented southern Democrats tried to foment an anti-Truman rebellion at the 1948 convention. When this strategy failed, some Democrats walked out and held their own convention in Birmingham, Alabama. They nominated then South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond to head the ticket of the States' Rights (also known as the Dixiecrat) Party. This walkout represents the first crack in the previously solid Democratic South.

Strom Thurmond and the States Rights Party carried four states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
"We stand for segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race..."
"We oppose the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation called for by the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions."--Platform of the States Rights Democratic Party, 1948

In 2002 at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday celebration Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Repbulican from Mississippi, made this statement:

I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.
Lott resigned his position as Majority Leader after a resulting controversy.
THE SOLID SOUTH

Throughout the 1950s the South voted Democratic. African-American voter turnout remained low. In 1960 the southern voter turnout was over twenty percent below the national average.

In both the 1952 and 1956 elections the South went solidly for the Democratic candidate Stevenson against the very popular Dwight Eisenhower. (1956's Democratic states shown in green.) In 1964 the South made its intial venture as a solid Republican block with Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina voting for the first time in decades for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater.

"Republican" was not a four-letter word, but until the 1960s it was a four-syllable word obnoxious in the minds of many South Carolinians. If one had leanings other than Democratic, he did not go around boasting of it in public.--From the memoirs of former Congressman C. Bruce Littlejohn
GEORGE WALLACE AND THE AMERICAN INDEPENDENTS PARTY

IN 1968 another southern politician split the solid South in the presidential race. George Wallace, the notorious segregationist governor of Alabama ran on the American Independent ticket. According to his biographer Dan T. Carter, Wallace "sensed and gave voice to a growing national white backlash in the mid-1960s." The federal government under the Democratic leadership of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had championed a series of new civil rights bills, among them the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Civil rights workers headed South to register African American voters — mostly new Democrats.
If George Wallace did not create this mood of national skepticism, he anticipated and exploited the political transformation it precipitated. His attacks on the federal government have become the gospel of modern conservatism; his angry rhetoric, the foundation for the new ground rules of political warfare. --Dan T. Carter, THE POLITICS OF RAGE: GEORGE WALLACE, THE ORIGINS OF THE NEW CONSERVATISM, AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS
"And now they [Republicans and Democrats] have created themselves a Frankenstein monster, and the chickens are coming home to roost all over this country...Yes, they've looked down their nose at you and me a long time. They've called us rednecks -- the Republicans and the Democrats. Well, we're going to show, there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country." --George Wallace on the campaign trail in 1968.

THE REAGAN REVOLUTION AND BEYOND

In 1976 the South went solidly for the Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter. The situation four years later in 1980 was radically different. In that contest Carter won only his home state of Georgia, the rest of the South voted for Ronald Reagan. The same held true for 1984 and 1988. George W. Bush has built on this powerful base of support.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have built on the legacy of resentment tapped into by Wallace and Thurmond. Social issues figured prominently in southern races and white evangelical Christians proved a powerful voter base for the Republican Party. Consider these trends from historian Richard K. Scher:

  • Beginning in 1980 the Republican presidential nominee has won about 54% of the popular vote in the South, virtually landslide proportions; the Democratic nominee averaged only 42%.
  • Since 1984, the South has supported the Republican presidential nominee at a higher percentage than the country as a whole. At the presidential level, the South is now the most Republican region of the country.
Published August 29, 2008
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