May 14, 2003

Southern Strategery

A statement that I made earlier today concerning partisan re-alignment in the southern states has sparked a mini-debate amongst three polsci bloggers—myself, James Joyner of OTB (here and here) and Brett Marston of Marstonalia.

My main point of contention is the exact relevance of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the partisan re-aligning of the southern states from being solidly Democratic to their current status as bulwarks of Republicanism. My basic thesis is that the shift is in the South was not chiefly because of racism or because of Nixon, and indeed was longer-term and more complex thatn simply an issue of segregationist Democrats moving to the Republican party. As the data below some, there was a long-term evolution of Republican-izing the South, and that much of the transformation has only been complete recently. Yes, some Southern Dems bolted for the Reps (such as the infamous Strom), but that was not the main element of the realignment.

Some brief background, for the uninitiated: Starting with the 1860 Presidential election (i.e., Lincoln I), where in most, if not all, places in the South (indeed, I think it was all, but hedge because I don’t know for a fact), a Republican ballot was not available, to the Radical Republican control of Congress during Reconstruction (and the Republican governors during the Reconstruction period), it quickly evolved to be the case that to run as a Republican in the South was to run as a loser. So for over a century, most contests in the South were settled in the primary, not in the general election (for some local elections this is still the case). However, as we all know, the former states of the CSA are now fairly staunchly Republican, although perhaps not as much as some people think. The question becomes, what caused the shift?

It is often charged, as Joe Klein did, as Brett does on his blog, and as was argued a great deal during the Trent Lott debacle back at the beginning of the year, that the basic explanation for partisan re-alignment in the South is due to segregationist Southern Democrats fleeing the party for the Republicans, especially as spurred on by Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to exploit this discontentedness. As I noted on comment at OTB, this is empirically not the case, and further I consider it a not-so-subtle attempt to paint the Republican Party as the party of racism, which, again, I believe to be empirically untrue. Are their racists in the Republican Party? Of course. Are there in the Democratic Party? Yes. Are there some Southern Democrats (indeed, a good number) who switched because of the race issue? Yes. Is that the main reason for the re-alignment? No.

(And speaking of Trent Lott—if Lott’s ridiculous comments were exposing some deep-seeded Republican truth, why was he drummed out of his position, left hanging by the White House, and largely excoriated by the entire universe of conservative punditry? Ok, back to the many story…)

For one thing, there was not radical re-alignment in the South during the early 1970s. Sure, Strom Thurmond and those of his ilk switched, but if one looks at the numbers, there was no wide-spread switch to Republicanism in the south at that time, electorally speaking, or in terms of candidates nor office-holders. Indeed, it is not until the 1990s that one can accurately say that most of the South was two-party competitive at all levels (with continued pockets of uni-partisan competition).

I. Presidential Elections

Further, it is valid argument that a significant part of the shift in the South was ideological. It is simply the case that the National Democratic Party did not nominate candidates who were as ideological compatible with conservative Southern Democrats, and so in some Southern state you do see some Southern states going Republican as early as 1920.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Tennessee voted for Harding, a Republican, in 1920.
  • Texas went Republican in 1928 for Hoover (as did VA, TN, NC and FL)
  • Texas, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida went for Ike in 1948, as they did in 1952 (adding LA).
  • TN, VA and FL went for Nixon in 1960
  • In 1964 LA, MS, AL, GA, and SC went for Goldwater
  • In 1968 most of the “Deep” South went for Wallace—clearly for racial reasons.
  • In 1972 everywhere but MA and DC went for Nixon.
  • In 1976 only VA went Republican, the rest went for Carter.
  • In 1980, only GA went for Carter, and in 1984 only MN and DC went for Mondale.
  • In 1988 Bush won all of the South, with 92 and 96 being a split, and G. W. Bush swept the South in 2000.

    Starting in the 1980 election it becomes clear that the South has become pretty solidly Republican behind Reagan, but there are states which go for Clinton in 92 and 96.

    What is mainly going on here? The answer is that in many of these cases, dating back befoe Nixon was even in politics, the more conservative majorities in many southern states, even though they voted Democratic for everything else, found that on balance the national Democratic candidate was too liberal for them, so they held their noses and vote Republican for president (heck, in Texas there were “Democrats for Ike” billboards).

    To see the maps, go here (this link is nice for the electoral college maps through to 1996 and links to 2000 info).

    Get electoral college “Box Scores” and other info here (more complete data, actually).

    In short: while it may have been Nixon’s strategy to capitalize on the split in the Democratic party, it is hardly explanatory in terms of the Rep shift over time. For one thing, it didn’t work very well for Nixon (in 1968 he lost most of the South, and in 1972 the whole country voted for Nixon (making a poor test case), and I would argue that McGovern was clearly too liberal for the Southern conservatives, and would have lost that election without any “Southern Strategy” on Nixon's part).

    And, as James aptly points out, there were ideological differences of relevance beyond race that affected these electoral outcomes.

    II. Senatorial Elections

    The lack of partisan re-alignment in the 1970s (and yes, Brett is right--there was not wholesale forgiveness for Reconstruction at this point, but neither was there wholesale re-alignment to the Reps at this point either) is even clearer if one looks at Senate races. Here’s some stats for former Confederate states, leaving aside Florida, simply because it isn’t a wholly “Southern” state.

  • Alabama elects it first post-Reconstruction Republican US Senator in 1980. The state doesn’t have two Republicans until 1997. One of the current Senators (Shelby) was a Democrat until 1994.
  • Arkansas has had one post-Reconstruction Rep Senate: from 1997-2003.
  • Georgia has elected all of three post-Reconstruction Republican Senators. and has never had two Rep Senators at the same time. They were elected in 1980, 1986 and 2002.
  • Louisiana hasn’t had a Republican Senator since 1883.
  • Mississippi elected its first Republican Senator in 1978, and had two Reps starting in 1989.
  • NC has had 5 total Rep Senators since Reconstruction. Jesse Helms came to office in 1973 (the rest coming in the 1980s or later).
  • SC has had only two—the party-switching Strom Thurmond, and his successor, Lindsey Graham.
  • TN has had 5 post-Reconstruction Era Reps.
  • Texas has had four Republicans in Senate seats (first one was in 1961, the second (who replaced the first) was in 1985), and only had two at the same time starting in 1993. Ironically, two of the first three Republicans were elected in special elections (John Tower took over when LBJ became VEEP and Kay Bailey Hutchison won Lloyd Bentsen’s seat when he became Clinton’s first SecTreas).
  • VA has had four Senators in the 20th Century—the first was in 1972.

    If you want to check the histories yourself, go here.

    I haven’t done the House at this point, because, quite frankly, it is more work. However, I would point out that in general, there was only moderate changes in partisan make-up in the Congress during the 1970s and through the 1980s, because conservative Southern Democrats, even if they were more ideologically close to the Republicans (such as Phil Gramm’s famous resignation and party swithcheroo in the early 80s) because they liked being in the majority, especially in the House, where the majority is king (indeed, the main reason the Democrats retained control of the House as long as they did, ws because of Southern Democrats). It isn’t until 1994, and the stunning (and unpredicted) “Republican Revolution” that one sees wholesale changes in Southern congressional candidates and members of Congress (you see several party switches at this time, such as Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who decided that the Republicans were more to his liking ideologically, and the fact that there were in the majority was nice, too). Indeed, there were five such switches in 1995 alone, two in the Senate (Shelby and Campbell of CO): and three House examples: Nathan Deal (GA), Greg Laughlin (TX), and Billy Tauzin (LA). Note that all but Campbell were Southern Democrats. And they switched for a combination of ideological reasons, and practical legislative politics, not for race-related issues.

    III. State-Level Politics

    A few tidbits:

  • Texas has only elected three Republican to the Governor’s Mansion in five elections (counting re-elections)—Bill Clements was elected to non-consecutive terms in 1978 and 1986. George W. Bush was elected in 1994 and 1998, and Rick Perry was elected in 2002.
  • Georgia elected its first Republican Governor just last year (2002).
  • Guy Hunt in 1986 was Alabama’s first Republican Governor since Reconstruction, Fob James the second in 1994 (he was Governor as a Democrat in 1978), and the third was Bob Riley, elected in 2002.
  • Mississippi had had one post-Reconstruction Rep Gov: Kirk Fordice, from 1992-2000.


  • Neither of Alabama’s house of the State Legislature has ever been held by the Republicans.
  • Texas Republicans won the state Senate for the first time in the late 1990s and only won control of the State House for the first time in 2002.

    In short, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” is not the main reason for the Republican transformation in the South. If anything, the transformation writ large did not happened to after Nixon was well out of office (indeed, until after he was dead). And while race was a factor (it is a factor in much of the politics of the South), ideological reasons, as well as practical political reasons, are quite relevant as well.

    Posted by Steven Taylor at May 14, 2003 08:58 PM | TrackBack
  • Comments

    Good bit of data hunting.

    Two minor addendums:

    *Tennessee (5 post-Reconstruction GOP Senators) is an odd case, since East Tennessee was pro-Union during the Civil War.

    *Alabama elected Guy Hunt, its first post-Reconstruction Republican Governor in 1986 as a complete fluke. Charlie Graddick who was the "more Republican" Democrat, won a Democrat primary run-off against Bill Baxley that year but the Democrat party officials overturned that result because of cross-over voting in the run-off by some who had voted in the GOP primary. Graddick would have won the election hands down and, indeed, Hunt was a token candidate who was a total boob and who would have gotten maybe 35% of the vote. Voter backlash against the perception Baxley had stolen the "election"--which was how the Democrat runoff was thought of--yielded the improbable Hunt victory.

    My guess is there are more examples like that. The bottom line is that the GOP switch was largely post-Reagan and, indeed, often relied on some rather weird circumstances.

    Posted by: James Joyner at May 15, 2003 08:21 AM

    Tennessee is clearly an atypical case.

    And thanks for the Hunt info.

    Posted by: PoliBlogger at May 15, 2003 08:30 AM

    Texas' first post-reconstruction Republican House Member: Harry Wurzbach R-San Antonio, 1922-1932. Texas Democrats thought that San Antonio would override the German Hill Country's Republican tendency and was seen to have goofed when the then mayor of San Antonio ran (Texas municipal elections are usually non-partisan). Texas' second post-reconstruction House Member: George H. W. Bush R-Houston, 1962. Bush's district has remained Republican ever since, sometimes by as much as 80-20.

    Posted by: David Block at May 15, 2003 03:31 PM

    Computer security recourse: [Secure Root]

    Posted by: Jerman at May 21, 2004 06:55 PM
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