In fact, the white South began breaking away from the Democrats in the 1920s, as population centers began to develop in what was being called the “New South”… . In the 1930s and 1940s, FDR performed worse in the South in every election following his 1932 election. By the mid-1940s, the GOP was winning about a quarter of the Southern vote in presidential elections. But the big breakthrough, to the extent that there was one, came in 1952. Dwight Eisenhower won 48 percent of the vote there, compared to Adlai Stevenson’s 52 percent. …
Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that something significant was afoot is Richard Nixon’s showing in 1960. He won 46.1 percent of the vote to John F. Kennedy’s 50.5 percent. One can write this off to JFK’s Catholicism, but writing off three elections in a row becomes problematic, especially given the other developments bubbling up at the local level. It’s even more problematic when you consider that JFK had the nation’s most prominent Southerner on the ticket with him.
But the biggest problem with the thesis comes when you consider what had been going on in the interim:
Two civil rights bills pushed by the Eisenhower administration had cleared Congress, and the administration was pushing forward with the Brown decision, most famously by sending the 101st Airborne Division to Arkansas to assist with the integration of Little Rock Central High School.
It’s impossible to separate race and economics completely anywhere in the country, perhaps least of all in the South. But the inescapable truth is that the GOP was making its greatest gains in the South while it was also pushing a pro-civil rights agenda nationally. What was really driving the GOP at this time was economic development. As Southern cities continued to develop and sprout suburbs, Southern exceptionalism was eroded; Southern whites simply became wealthy enough to start voting Republican.
Trende’s book, The Lost Majority, digs deeper into this contrarian history.