Solid South

From Academic Kids

The phrase "Solid South" describes the reliable electoral support of the U.S. Southern states for Democratic Party candidates for almost a century after the Reconstruction era. Except for 1928, when Catholic candidate Al Smith ran on the Democratic ticket, Democrats won heavily in the South in every Presidential election from 1876 until 1948 (and even in 1928, the divided South provided most of Smith's electoral votes). Today, however, the South is the stronghold for the Republican Party in Presidential elections.

The Democratic dominance originated in many Southerners' animosity towards the Republican Party's role in the Civil War and the Reconstruction. It was maintained by the Democratic Party's willingness to accommodate the South's Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, under the rubric of "states' rights". Conversely, black voters, today largely committed to the Democratic Party, tended to support Republicans.

Democratic factionalization over the Civil Rights Movement

The "Solid South" began to erode when Democratic President Harry S. Truman took steps toward supporting the civil rights movement. His policies, combined with the adoption of a civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform, prompted many Southerners to walk out of the Democratic National Convention and form the Dixiecrat Party. This splinter party was significant only in the 1948 election; the Dixiecrat candidate, Strom Thurmond, carried Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In the elections of 1952 and 1956, the popular Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower carried several southern states, although the South was still the bastion for his Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson.

In the 1960 election, the Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy, continued his party's tradition of selecting a Southerner as the Vice Presidential candidate (in this case, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas). Kennedy, however, supported civil rights, partly at the strong urging of his brother Robert. In October 1960, when civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested at a peaceful sit-in in Atlanta, Georgia, Kennedy placed a sympathetic phone call to King's wife, Coretta Scott King, and Robert Kennedy telephoned the judge and helped secure King's release. King expressed his appreciation for these calls. Although King himself made no endorsement, his father, who had previously endorsed Republican Richard Nixon, switched his support to Kennedy. The Democrats, however, lost ground with pro-segregation whites. The 1960 election was the first one in which the Republican candidate, although losing nationally, received electoral votes in the South. Nixon carried Virginia, Tennessee and Florida. In addition, conservative Democratic Senator Harry Byrd received some electoral votes from unpledged electors in Mississippi and Alabama (as well as Oklahoma).

The parties' roles on the civil rights issue continued their evolution in the 1964 election. The Democratic candidate, Johnson, having become President after Kennedy's assassination, had signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, had voted against it, although large majorities of the Republican minorities in both houses of Congress supported the bill. Johnson won a landslide victory and the Republicans also suffered significant losses of Congressional seats. Goldwater carried his home state of Arizona, but the rest of his electoral votes all came from the South. In just eight years, from 1956 to 1964, the region that had seen almost the only victories by a Democratic challenger against a popular Republican incumbent had switched to providing almost the only victories for a Republican challenger against a popular Democratic incumbent.

The "Southern strategy" and the end of the Solid South

In the 1968 election, the Republican candidate, Nixon, saw and capitalized on this trend with his "Southern strategy" -- an appeal to white Southerners who were more conservative than the national Democratic Party. As a result, the Democratic candidate, Hubert H. Humphrey, was almost shut out in the South, carrying only Texas. The rest of the region was divided between Nixon and the American Independent Party candidate, former Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama, who had gained fame for opposing integration. Nationwide, Nixon won a decisive Electoral College victory although he received only a plurality of the popular vote.

After Nixon's landslide re-election win in 1972, the Democrats made a comeback in the South in 1976, when their candidate was a Southerner (Jimmy Carter of Georgia). The success was short-lived, however. In Carter's unsuccessful re-election bid in 1980, he lost the South except for his native Georgia. The Republicans took all the region's electoral votes in 1984 and 1988. In 1992 and 1996, when the Democratic ticket consisted of two Southerners (Bill Clinton and Al Gore), they could still only split the region. In 2000, Gore, as the Presidential candidate, received no electoral votes from the South, even from his home state of Tennessee (although the result in Florida was extraordinarily close and controversial). This pattern continued in the 2004 election; the Democratic ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards received no electoral votes from the South, although Edwards was from North Carolina.

On the night he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson said to his aide, Bill Moyers, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come." [1] ( Today the South has a mix of Republican and Democratic officeholders (Senators, Representatives and state governors). In Presidential elections, however, the region is a Republican stronghold. The term "Solid South" has thus acquired a meaning opposite to its historical one. Florida, home to many retirees from elsewhere in the country, is considered to be "in play" between the major parties. Elsewhere, however, the Democratic candidate can expect an uphill fight, despite winning overwhelmingly among the region's black voters.


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