The electoral coalitions both the Democratic and Republican parties rely on in the 21st century are radically different from those in the 20th. Republicans used to be a party reliant on business-minded centrists centered in the Midwest and Northeast. Democrats relied on conservative voters all across the South. One of the most recent phenomenon in American electoral politics has been the South moving from solidly blue territory to being Republican turf. Most people and analysts assumed this occurred during the Civil Rights era when the region was undergoing dramatic upheaval. But in truth, the groundwork was laid for the South turning red by President Eisenhower (considered before the Civil Rights era came into full swing).
But first, a little background is in order. The roots of the South’s Democratic tilt was solidified in the 1840’s and 1850’s over the issue of slavery. Democrats in the South protected the practice while Republicans and Democrats in the North opposed the practice. The defeat of the South in the Civil War initially led Southern states that pledged loyalty to the union to be dominated by Republicans. African-Americans at this point in time were solidly Republican. But as soon as their voting numbers dropped off the South returned to its Democratic form.
This trend continued into the early 20th century. But schisms were developing between Southern Democrats and their counterparts elsewhere in the nation. Democrats embraced unions and populism across the country but in the South conservatism ran deep. Southern Democrats did not share national Democrats embrace of unions and populism. Woodrow Wilson’s presidency would not have been possible if he had not pledged to honor the South’s conservative roots and be respectful of states rights. Despite FDR’s outspoken liberalism he was able to win Southern Democrats on the same pledge. But as FDR broke on this pledge, creating massive new federal programs and Social Security, he essentially bribed these voters by allowing a Democratic Congress to lavish massive spending projects on the region.
Following FDR, Truman used the same strategy and it worked well. But the schisms between governmental activist Democrats and their Southern brethren had been ripped open by Truman with his desegregation of the military. This action allowed former Allied 5 Star General Dwight Eisenhower to get Southern voters to consider the GOP for the first time. It did help Eisenhower his opponent was weak. Adlai Stevenson had little appeal but he did know the South was key to Democratic prospects. In 1952 Stevenson carried every Southern state other than Tennessee and Virginia. Tennessee that year was decided by a razor-thin .28%.
In 1956 Eisenhower did even better nationally against Stevenson. More importantly, Eisenhower made deep inroads for the GOP in the South. Eisenhower again carried Virginia and again closely carried Tennessee. But Eisenhower also carried Kentucky, West Virginia, and Louisiana. Other than Tennessee, Eisenhower carried all the Southern states he won by at least 8%. Eisenhower also closely lost Missouri and North Carolina.
Eisenhower was smart in exploiting the rifts that were apparent in a Democratic Party bereft of an incumbent President to defend. Eisenhower was also presiding over a booming economy and benefited from T. Coleman Andrews of the States Rights Party stealing votes nationwide from Stevenson. Andrews showing proved just how strong a candidacy based on states rights could be.
Eisenhower was the first Republican since Teddy Roosevelt to actually make an effort to win the South and the results showed. Eisenhower won dozens of new Southern counties in 1952 and added onto these victories in 1956. While the Deep South remained strongly Democratic territory Eisenhower lost many of these counties by at least 10 points less than he did in 1952.
Eisenhower’s moves paved the way for the GOP to continue to court Southerners. Nixon carried Kentucky and Tennessee in 1960 while Kennedy was unable win Alabama or Mississippi because of the candidacy of Harry Bird. Bird’s candidacy was based opposition to the Kennedy presidency’s toying with Civil Rights legislation. In 1964 for the first time in modern memory a Republican, Barry Goldwater, a libertarian conservative campaigning on states rights won the Deep South. His strategy was straight out of the playbook of Andrew’s campaign. But he lost traditionally Republican territory elsewhere across the country. Nixon would be the first Republican to completely carry the South in 1972. Democrats had lost of the South by 1968 as American Independent George Wallace ran against the Civil Rights Act. Wallace carried every Deep South state.
Jimmy Carter would be the last Democrat to dominate the South. It helped he could remind Southern voters that Ford was tied to Nixon and also Carter came hailed the South. But in 1980 Southern voters turned against Carter and sided with Reagan. By 2000, with the election of George W. Bush, the South was solidly GOP territory at the Presidential level. In 1994, the South had thrown out dozens of local and Congressional Democrats. Ties to Democrats at the local and Congressional level kept Democrats in control at the state level in many South states, even in 1994. But after the 2010 election the GOP gained control of Southern states they had not had control of since Reconstruction (see North Carolina).
Today the South is solidly red. But Southern Whites began to flee the party back in 1952 when the national party began to abandon their interests. It is unlikely in the near or long-term Democrats will be able to reverse this trend. And Republicans have Eisenhower to thank.