Sean Trende emails the Dish:
I came across your readers’ factcheck of my earlier piece. This subject is near-and-dear to my heart, and an area where I’ve devoted quite a bit of writing. I think a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that I’ve written pretty extensively about this elsewhere (namely my book, which you were kind enough to link). So in some areas I didn’t fully explain myself. Here, my goal was actually to avoid some of the thornier issues of causation as much as possible and to stick to the more factual question of whether 1964 represents some “sudden realignment” hypothesis we hear so often. That latter point may be of purely academic interest, but it is misstated so often in popular media that I figure it must have some sort of general salience.
My big picture view is that there are really four southern realignments: the mountains in the 1860s, the cities from the 1920s to the 1950s, the rural areas in the 1960s-90s, and the upcountry, Jacksonian areas in the 2000s and 2010s. All of these really do have separate causes. My main beef is that everyone acts as if the third realignment, which was heavily racialized in many respects, is the entire story.
It is true, as the first reader notes, that the Republicans didn’t fare that well in presidential elections in the South in the 1920s. My point is just that if you look at the results closely, you see the seeds of GOP ascendency here. In 1924, Coolidge got 2% of the vote in South Carolina. But there were three counties where Coolidge exceeded 10%: Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown. Not accidentally, these were three of the more urban counties in the state at the time, if barely so.
Similarly, in Florida Coolidge carried Pinellas (St. Petersburg) and Palm Beach counties, and came close in Orange (Orlando) and Dade counties. Coolidge carried Arlington in Virginia. The trick is that these places were relatively urban, but still small (Dade County cast 11,000 votes; Pinellas 6,000; Arlington 3,000). As they grew, the Southern Republican Party grew. In other words, the *template* sprung up in the 1910s and 20s, even if the effects were minimal at the time (think of it like the Hispanic vote in the 1960s: still heavily Democratic, too small to make a difference, but in retrospect an important datapoint).
It’s wrong to write off 1928 as an exception due to Smith’s Catholicism. That played a huge role, but contemporaneous accounts ascribe an almost-equal role to the fact that he was a “wet” on prohibition. It showed the party would have trouble if it became too northern, ethnic, urban, and liberal. In fact, there’s a pretty high correlation between the counties Hoover won, and those Ike won. And again, the urban template is there: Hoover wins Texas because he gets 61% in Dallas County, 56% in Harris (Houston) and 69% in Tarrant (Ft. Worth). Ike got 63%, 58%, and 58% in 1952, but won the state by a wider margin because those areas grew. Ike does worse that Hoover in the highland South, where racial issues were less salient (though arguably less intense) and the prohibition issue was more important in 1928, but made up for it because the urban counties were larger than in 1928.
I actually do compare the South to the country as a whole in an earlier piece, which I referenced. As an aside, I don’t know why your reader would exclude Texas and Florida, especially in this time period, and especially since they were home to some of the bigger centers of growing Republican strength in the South. If you include them, the South drops from 23.4 percent more Democratic than the nation in 1932 to 18.2 percent more Democratic in 1944 (if you use two-party vote, it drops from 22.2% to 20.2%). On average, the South was 21% more Democratic than the country as a whole during FDR’s term, compared with 27% from 1904 through 1924 (25% including 1928).
These aren’t huge drops, but then again, my claim was that the huge drops occurred in 1952. Also, remember that a drop in Democratic vote share of six points corresponds generally to a 12 point diminution of the point spread.
As for MS and SC, I concede in the piece that MS was a state where Goldwater made a real breakthrough, along with AL and, to a lesser extent, GA. But SC had been a very close state in 1952 and 1960. It may have swung big from 1916 to 1964 toward Goldwater, but most of that swing from 1944 (88% Roosevelt) to 1952 (51% Stevenson). That’s the whole point: By 1964, the GOP was mostly there in most of the southern states.
Obviously what was going on on the Democratic side was important, as both readers note. But again, I don’t really spend a lot of time on causes in the piece; it’s just a fact that the South had been a swing region for the 12 years prior to Goldwater, regardless of what the reason was. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that race had nothing to do with it. I think a lot of the switch in the 1950s and early 60s had to do with the fact that, post-1948, racist southerners had no place to go on segregation.
But – and this might seem to be splitting hairs too finely – the question of why Southern Democrats left the Democratic Party is somewhat distinct from why they voted Republican. If the parties were on equal footing on segregation-and given the Eisenhower Administration’s record on civil rights, I’m not sure I’d go that far-why did so many southerners turn to the GOP? And why was it uneven, with urban areas moving at a much faster pace than rural ones? My view – incidentally, borrowed from Shafer and Johnston’s convincing, data-driven “The End of Southern Exceptionalism” – is that if the South had stayed poor and rural, it would have stayed Democratic or started a third party after the ’48 convention. Why? Because this is what the poor, rural South did.
This goes to most of what the second reader writes. Obviously this story is well-known to specialists, but the “1964-as-sudden-turning-point” is nearly ubiquitous in the commentariat. Even political scientists like Tom Schaller in Whistling Past Dixie make reference to it. And I certainly don’t deny that Republicans exploited racial tensions, nor that they often ran racist candidates, especially in the post-1964 period, in order to win over rural southern whites; in fact, I’m pretty sure I said as much in the piece.
Sorry about the length. I could write about this for hours, and feel blessed that I can. Love this stuff!