Now, what’s particularly interesting about that history is how the South switched from being a one-party Democratic state to being a one-party Republican state. Yes, the parties have changed over the years, but that movement is kind of like switching from being a Red Sox fan to being a Yankees fan, from loving Coke to loving Pepsi, from being a dog person to being a cat person ...
That switch started roughly with the 1948 election and was pretty well finished in 1972. In the early years of that period, Southerners often voted for third parties – Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd, George Wallace. After Nixon’s landslide over McGovern in ’72, the South neglected to go all red only on rare occasions – typically, for native sons like Carter and Clinton.
Better Off Without ‘Em
I just finished an excellent book, Better Off Without ‘Em, by Chuck Thompson. The sub-title is “A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession,” and Thompson does a wonderful job skewering my region and also bemoaning the outsized effect it’s had on the rest of the USA.
That book got me thinking about what presidential elections might have looked like without the solid South. More recently, it made me wonder if the country would have elected right wingers like Reagan and Bush II. More historically (say, between the Civil War and JFK), I wondered if the country could have elected any Democrats at all.
Before the Big Switch
Historically, the South was solidly Democratic. From 1880 through 1916, the region never once voted for a Republican in a presidential election (and only one state defected in both 1920 and 1924). There were some major defections in 1928 (the Democratic candidate was Catholic – gasp!), but the South went super solid again for all of FDR’s four elections.
Except for FDR, Democratic presidents were pretty rare birds during this period – basically, just Cleveland and Wilson. I was wondering, though, if even they could have made it without the solid South. Looking at the data (basically, subtracting the former Confederacy from the Electoral College), here’s what I got:
|Year||Dem. Pres. Elected||Electoral Votes||Electoral Votes w/out South||Rep. Electoral Votes||Winner|
|1884||Cleveland||219||120||182||James G. Blaine!!!||1892||Cleveland||277||145||156||Benjamin Harrison!!!|
|1916||Wilson||277||138||254||Charles Evans Hughes!!!|
So, there would have been only four years of Democratic administrations between the Civil War and FDR, instead of the existing eight. And school kids would have to memorize two additional presidents, Blaine and Hughes.
Richard Nixon was the first Republican candidate to really go trolling for Southern votes. It was called the “Southern strategy,” and it was largely the idea of Kevin Phillips. (I’m not including Barry Goldwater’s version of the same strategy, as Goldwater was very much a fringe candidate back in 1964).
After that, Republicans pretty much dominated the South to the present day, with exceptions for native sons Carter and Clinton in 1976, 1992, and 1996. Once again, though, I’m wondering how successful they would have been without the (now Republican) solid South. Let’s take a look.
|Year||Rep. Pres. Elected||Electoral Votes||Elec. Votes w/out South||Dem. Electoral Votes||Winner|
|1988||Bush I||426||271||105||Bush I|
So, once again, eight additional years for the out party (this time, the Democrats), as well as two brand new presidents (though Gore would probably simply have repeated, if he had originally been elected in 2000).
Up until, oh maybe JFK, Southerners were not well represented on national presidential ballots. I guess the Democrats just figured they didn’t even have to bother. The old saying was that Southerners would vote for a “yellow dog” (i.e., a real mongrel) before they would vote for a Republican. In the same vein, Republicans must have known nominating a Southerner wouldn’t have made any differences whatsoever.
The only exception for Democrats was John Nance Gardner, a Texan, and FDR’s VP in 1932 and 1936 (FDR would actually dump him in 1940). There wouldn’t be another Southerner until Alban Barkley, a Kentuckian, was Truman’s VP in 1948.
(I really don’t count Woodrow Wilson as a Southerner. Yes, he was born and grew up down here – and was a terrible racist – but he headed up North for college, and never looked back.)
It was only after Nixon that Southerners started playing a major role on each party’s tickets, Actually, they rather started to dominate things – Carter, Bentsen, Clinton, Gore, Bush I, Bush II.
So, if we were to eliminate the South from the electoral college, I guess we’d have to eliminate any Southern candidates as well. And here’s what that might mean:
|Year||Party||Position||Actual Candidate||Likely Non-Southern Candidate|
|1948||Democrat||VP||Barkley||William O. Douglas (Supreme Court Justice)|
|1960||Democrat||VP||LBJ||Stuart Symington (MO Senator)|
|1976||Democrat||Pres.||Carter||Mo Udall (AZ Congressman)|
|1980||Republican||VP||Bush I||John Anderson (IL Congressman)|
|1988||Democrat||VP||Lloyd Bentsen||Dick Gephardt (MO Congressman)|
|2000||Republican||Pres.||Bush II||John McCain|
|2004||Republican||Pres.||Bush II||John McCain|
|2004||Democrat||VP||John Edwards *||Gephardt / Tom Vilsac|
* Bradley / Lieberman may have simply repeated
So, who would it have been in 1992, Jerry Brown or John Anderson? Would you have voted for Mo Udall in 1976 (heck, would you have voted for anyone who wasn’t associated in any way, shape, or form with Nixon)? Who would it have been in 2000, McCain or former Knick Bill Bradley? Oh, and does this mean Linda Ronstadt would have been the first lady?