Late yesterday I devoted some time to a deconstruction of Kevin Williamson’s latest revisionist claim that Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign was a confirmation rather than a repudiation of the GOP’s heritage as the party of civil rights. Jamelle Bouie beat me to the punch on this topic. But then today RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende trained his formidable empirical powers on a part of Bouie’s argument and does indeed make a solid if somewhat irrelevant case that 1964 was an interruption rather than a consummation of the GOP’s conquest of the South, which gained momentum during the Eisenhower years–particularly 1956, when Ike won a plurality of the popular vote in the region.
With respect to Williamson’s claims, the relevant data point about 1964 isn’t Republican performance in “the South” or even among “southern whites,” but Goldwater’s boffo perfomance among self-conscious white supremacists–the old Dixiecrats who with occasional exceptions stuck with the White Man’s Party until virtually every single one of them voted for Goldwater in 1964.
Trende’s pre-Goldwater Republican surge in the South was based on a coalition of “traditional” Appalachian Republicans who had been voting for the GOP since the Civil War, and a growing “modern Republican” base in the gradually developing cities and suburbs–plus a decent share of the relatively few African-Americans who were allowed to vote, mostly in the “outer South.” But “modern Republicanism” barely made a dent in the hard-core Jim Crow South, the Black Belt areas and Black Belt-dominated states (with the slight exception of Louisiana, where Ike’s support of state control of offshore oil resources was extremely popular).
The partisan implications of self-conscious racial voting, BTW, was a major theme in V.O. Key’s classic late 1940s work, Southern Politics, particularly a chapter entitled “Hoovercrats and Dixiecrats,” where Key contrasted the electoral behavior of Black Belt voters in 1928, when upland whites heavily defected to the GOP in rejection of the “wet” Catholic Al Smith, and in 1948, when the same white supremacist voters who stayed loyal to the Democratic Party in 1928 defected after the Democratic National Convention adopted a civil rights plank. These are the voters who largely resisted Ike in 1956 and Nixon in 1960, and went over to Goldwater en masse in 1964. That’s the “breakthrough” I was talking about yesterday, when voters of both races primarily preoccupied with civil rights issues polarized almost universally.
Goldwater’s conquest of the southern white racist vote for the GOP wasn’t permanent. In 1968, the availability of George Wallace on the general election ballot led Goldwater’s Dixiecrats to move en masse once again: in Mississippi, the Republican share of the presidential vote went from 87% in 1964 to 14% in 1968. With Wallace off the ballot in 1972 (though with African-Americans finally beginning to vote), Nixon won 78% in Mississippi in 1972. (There’s a similar trend line in Alabama, where the Republican vote gyrated from 70% in 1964 to 14% in 1968 to 72% in 1972). The old Dixiecrat vote split in 1976, when a moderate native southerner who had been endorsed by George Wallace was on the ballot, but by 1984 the racial polarization of the two parties in the South had assumed something like its current trajectory.
In general, Trende’s absolutely correct that the partisan realignment of the South began earlier than a lot of people remember, as part of a process where 1964 was an important incident, not a general “breakthrough.” But when it comes to the voters who left the Democratic Party almost exclusively because it was no longer the “White Man’s Party,” 1964 was indeed a breakthrough, which is fatal to Williamson’s hypothesis.