Beginning in the late 1960s, the Democratic Party lost its once-solid southern bloc to the Republicans. In truth historians often overstate the solidity of the South. Democrats of the South split from their national brethren whenever the party took a step toward its more cosmopolitan wing. It happened in 1928, when the Democrats nominated a Catholic of mixed ancestry to the presidency; in 1948, when President Truman moved a short step or two toward “securing these rights,” as championed by Hubert Humphrey; in 1960, when the Democrats nominated another Catholic who was somewhat less indifferent to Civil Rights than the white South would have liked; in 1964, by which time the Johnson administration had committed itself to “enforcing the right to vote”; and in 1968, when the Democrats could no longer pretend they weren’t serious about this Civil Rights business and nominated Humphrey his own self.
We thus know that a significant number of white voters in the South would desert the national Democratic Party—even for a Republican, as they did in 1964—if it wavered in its commitment to white supremacy.
What’s more, ever since Kevin Phillips predicted, “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”—which is to say, ever since Nixon’s “southern strategy”—it’s been commonplace to assume that the Republicans picked up where the Democrats left off in courting bigoted whites, in the South and elsewhere. Hence Rick Perlstein’s observations; hence Reagan’s pilgrimage to Philadelphia, Mississippi; hence Lee Atwater explaining that “you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff”; and all, all, all that stuff down to “Harold, call me,” and “Obama’s Baby Mama.”
But wait, now. Along come some political scientists to tell us this Republican racism is a bit of a side show, that the real story of the GOP’s new southern eminence has to do with the emergence, at long last, of a New South, ushered (ironically) into being by Democratic programs of New Deal and wartime mobilization. As people in the South got richer, they got more Republican, for the same reasons that people get Republican anywhere else—they want to keep their taxes low and protect their own interests.1
One of the best-known works in this line was co-written by a friend and former colleague of mine, Byron E. Shafer, together with Richard Johnston, titled The End of Southern Exceptionalism. They argue that more, richer white southerners means more Republican white southerners. They also point out that the rise of richer white Republican southerners correlates strongly to what they call “racial attitudes”—i.e., richer white Republican southerners markedly oppose federal aid to African Americans.
There’s no reason to suppose either that this is untrue, or that it has nothing to do with the peculiar racial history of the South. What we see here seems to be the rise of “Bankhead Republicans”—the kind of person who (then) Congressman John Bankhead described in 1901, someone whose economic interests would naturally lead him to vote Republican if only he didn’t have to worry that the GOP would threaten white supremacy. With the end of legal white supremacy, nothing stood between the Bankhead Republican and his true partisan home, and he could vote Republican—while making sure that his new party didn’t support any further federal aid to African Americans.
Unfortunately, Shafer and Johnston’s unobjectionable and indeed highly helpful discovery, that Bankhead Republicans actually came out to vote much as Bankhead predicted they would, sometimes gets compressed into the excitingly provocative but proportionately wrong formula, “it’s class, not race” which led to the rise of the southern GOP. Shafer and Johnston’s own attention to “racial attitudes” makes clear all by itself that you don’t have to choose between the two.
Also unfortunately, Shafer and Johnston sometimes contribute to this confusion themselves, nowhere more than in the short section they devote to the influence of George Wallace on southern politics. Now, we think we know this story, too: Wallace helped loosen the loyalty of southern whites to the Democratic Party in 1964 and in 1968; the sort of person who voted for Wallace in 1968 was the sort of person who’d voted for Goldwater in 1964 and if he couldn’t have Wallace in 1968, he’d rather have had Nixon than Humphrey. Which suggests to us that this is not someone who’s going to vote for McGovern in 1972 and probably, sometime over the next decade, will become a Republican if he hasn’t already.
But—say Shafer and Johnston—not so fast.
… the Wallace victories of 1968 were actually harder on the Republicans than on the Democrats. Wallace carried a much higher percentage of districts that had gone Republican in 1964 (66 percent) than he did of districts that had gone Democratic (31 percent)…. Jimmy Carter … pick[ed] up heavier majorities of those districts that had gone for Wallace (at 79 percent) than of those that had gone for Nixon (at 59 percent)…. [F]our years later…. the only districts that retained a majority in Democratic hands were those that had gone for Wallace, where Democrats were still worth 58 percent of the total….
[T]o say the same thing in even more provocative fashion…. [T]he Republican candidate for President in 1968, Richard Nixon, did better in districts carried by Lyndon Johnson (the Democrat) in 1964 than by Barry Goldwater (the Republican)…. [I]f anyone was a “bridge” to Republicanism in 1968, it was Johnson….
To rephrase: in the South the Democrats ultimately kept the Wallace voters, while the Republicans picked up the Johnson voters. It’s provocative, all right. Is it true?
Curious, I did what any curious person with a computer and research university privileges would do: I downloaded a bunch of data from the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. It pleases me first of all to report that in one of the Great Big ICPSR Datasets of Elections, the variable for George Wallace’s percentage of the 1968 presidential vote, by county, is variable number 666. Hence the title of this post, in which we look at evil variable 666 to see which modern party bears its mark. And we’ll look at percentage vote by county, in the states of the former Confederacy.
So there you have a set of paired scatterplots of the presidential elections from 1972 to 1988 inclusive, Democrats on the left, Republicans on the right, with the votes by county in the former Confederacy graphed against the Wallace votes from 1968 by county in the former Confederacy. To me, they all look pretty darn noisy except the first one, for 1972, where there’s a clear positive carryover from Wallace ’68 to Nixon ’72, and maybe the last one, for 1988, where there’s just abouta more positive relationship for Bush ’88 than for Dukakis ’88.
But—even though regressions bear out that last observation—I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on it. Because remember, the unit of analysis here is the county—not the voter. And this is a period when people move around a lot—more, it’s a period when people move around a lot in response to Wallace-related issues—i.e., it’s a period of white flight. So although Bush ’88 does significantly correlate to Wallace ’68, there’s no reason to believe it’s a similar electorate he’s appealing to. Same goes for the other constituency that’s supposed to be Wallace-like, i.e., Carter in ’80.
Picking two variables that are supposed to be significant, we look here at the votes for three candidates—Wallace ’68, Carter ’80, and Bush ’88—and their relation to the percentage of the population that’s African American, on the left, and the median family income, on the right.
The relation of the Wallace vote to the black population is noisy but strong, positive, and significant—which is to say that broadly speaking, the more African Americans there were in a county, the further up the Wallace vote went. And not, of course, because black voters went for Wallace but (so the traditional theory of southern politics says) whites in more-black areas were more pro-segregation. The relation of the Carter and Bush votes to the black population is much cleaner and more significant, and strongly positive in Carter’s case and strongly negative in Bush’s case. I’m more inclined to believe that this has to do with black voters’ own preferences: both Bush and Carter had been on both sides of various Civil Rights issues, but by the ’80’s African Americans had pretty clearly decided the Democrats better served their interests than the Republicans.
The income graphs, on the right, are much more bunched up but poorer areas went pretty clearly for Carter in 1980, richer areas went pretty handily for Bush in 1988. There’s a negative correlation between the Wallace vote and income in 1968, but again it’s very noisy.
So I don’t see what Shafer and Johnston see—I’d bet from looking at this that Nixon got the Wallace vote in ’72, when probably not so much had changed demographically since ’68. But in later elections, people have moved around a lot and just looking at race and income, the constituencies for the same counties look pretty different. Which isn’t to say Shafer and Johnston are wrong, per se—(1) I’m looking at counties, not districts; (2) I spent all of a couple of afternoons on this; (3) I may well be missing something incredibly obvious, such that it’s better to look at districts than counties, or something. Political scientists in the readership who want to look at this and tell me how I got it all wrong are welcome. It’s just to say, I don’t see what Shafer and Johnston see.
To be clear, I wouldn’t say either that the rise of the Republican Party in the South owes only to the GOP picking up a racist remnant the Democrats let drop. But it’s a major factor; the South is a region where, as Larry Bartels says, “Republicans have made major gains in every income class due to the end of the unnatural Democratic monopoly of the Jim Crow era.” And anyway pocketbook issues are inseparable from racial issues, as Shafer and Johnston, echoing Bankhead, indicate.2
1Which is to say, the reasons people used to become Republicans, back before the flood of new Republicans who want to keep random Afghans indefinitely in Cuba.
2Shafer and Johnston also use election survey data to look at individuals, finding that lower income people vote for Wallace than for Humphrey, concluding “Wallace’s vote … [is] unlikely to become a bridge to subsequent Republicanism” on the basis of this class composition. I’m still not sure about this, because again we should think about Wallace voters having Nixon as their second choice in 1968. Do we really think that someone whose preferences are (1) Wallace and (2) Nixon will in 1972 decide to vote for McGovern over Nixon? That also seems unlikely, and as Shafer and Johnston’s data can’t track the same person from one election to another, we can’t tell.