The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected, by Earl Black and Merle Black, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 400 pages, $29.95
Political punditry is half guesswork, half rumor mongering, and half brazen fabrication—and almost always less than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, for decades there has been a steady stream of political experts who wish to inform punditry with a little more substance. They seek to divine systemic explanations for and predictive principles from the outcomes of American political contests, even though our politics often stubbornly refuses to add up.
In recent years, the focus has been less on personalities (as in Theodore H. White's classic Making of the President series) and more on categories. Look at the latest additions to the political bookshelf. Erstwhile Republican operative Kevin Phillips examines the electorate on the politics of rich and poor. Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall see a chain reaction originating in racial division. American Enterprise Institute scholar and Atlantic Monthly contributing editor William Schneider foretells the dawn of suburban vs. urban politics. Gender, generation, and ideology also sustain many a political tome.
These are all productive ways of looking at political questions. But during a presidential election year, our peculiar electoral college system dictates yet another focus: states and regions. The fact remains that in all but two states, electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. What really matters in presidential contests is winning states, not winning demographic categories or zip codes.
Neither ideology nor competence fully explains a regional candidate's appeal. Sometimes birthplace, accent, and rhetorical style still matter to voters; Texas suburbanites aren't interchangeable with Maine suburbanites, nor do young Californians react the same way to candidates as do young Carolinians. State patriotism and regionalism, much like the nationalism unleashed with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, defy the forces of modernity and resist easy explanation.
All of which is a long way of saying the new book by political scientists Earl and Merle Black is a good read. The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected isn't titled simply for effect. The Blacks argue convincingly that during most of the 20th century, at least, when a party had a Solid South behind it, it always won. From 1932 to 1948, the South went solidly Democratic, as did the country. From 1968 to 1988, the South went solidly Republican, as did the country (with the post-Watergate exception of 1976). During the interim between the Solid Democratic South and the Solid Republican South, the two parties actively competed in and split the vote of the South, leading sometimes to close contests (1960) and other times to landslides (1956 and 1964).
There are really two books here, perhaps reflecting the different strengths of the two Blacks. One book is essentially a statistical manual for political professionals and journalists. Few other readers will be able to survive the onslaught of line graphs, tables, plots, and maps that amplify the Blacks' insights into recent political trends. But if you do, you'll see how difficult it will be for Clinton, no matter how much momentum he takes into the home stretch of the presidential campaign, to put together an electoral vote majority—without the South, that is.
Assume that Clinton wins every state Michael Dukakis did in 1988, as well as the border and Western states where Dukakis polled at least 45 percent. To win, he will still need to beat Bush in California. Pennsylvania, Illinois, and a couple of other large, previously Republican-leaning states. Now with fellow Southerner Al Gore of Tennessee on the ticket, Clinton might expect more gains in the South. But the trends the Blacks cite will be hard even for the Democrats' all-South ticket to overcome.
The other book the Blacks have written is an eminently readable, entertaining account of presidential elections held since 1860, with particularly insightful discussions of the competitive races of the 1950s and 1960s. Of interest to Perot nostalgics are the elections of 1860, 1912, 1948, and 1968, when the normal two-man race gave way to more interesting combinations. In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency with a scant plurality of the popular vote in a four-man field including Stephen Douglas of the Northern Democrats, John C. Breckenridge of the Southern Democrats, and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party.
This election, and the ensuing Civil War, set up the patterns of presidential politics—a relatively solid North and Republican-leaning West outvoting a solid Democratic South—that gave Republicans an advantage for over half a century. The pattern was broken only sporadically by scandal or, in the case of Woodrow Wilson's victory in 1912, by a challenge to Republican nominee William H. Taft by disgruntled Republican Teddy Roosevelt running on the "Bull Moose" Progressive ticket. The pattern was finally shattered by the Depression and the ascension of Roosevelt's cousin, FDR, to the White House in 1932.
The Blacks pay attention to more often-ignored but crucial issues than I can list here, but one is the changing profile of the Republican Party in the South during the 20th century. Since the Civil War, there had been two major blocs within the small party. In the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia, blacks—the victims of Democratic perfidy—often dominated state parties. In the Peripheral South states, there was a Republicanism based in anti-secessionism and resentment of traditional Democratic elites who controlled state politics and power. This second group of Republicans, primarily whites, used to be found only in the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Arkansas, and eventually in a few urban enclaves in Florida, Texas, and Alabama. But as the century progressed, this tradition of Republicanism grew, especially in mill towns and the nascent suburbs of the region's few big cities. These Republicans tended to be individualistic, antigovernment, and friendly to business.
When Harry Truman moved away from the Democratic Party's historical resistance to civil rights, however, conservative white Democrats began their gradual shift toward the GOP, a process that still continues. These new Republicans have very different priorities than the traditional wing of the party, not only on race but on other issues. They helped pull the Southern Republican parties more toward social-issue concerns. Conflicts between the two groups persist to this day, especially in the Peripheral South.
The Blacks are at their best when discussing the racial politics of the 1950s and 1960s. For liberal Democrats, they are exceptionally fairminded. They correctly point out that Barry Goldwater, whose statements against the 1964 Civil Rights Act helped him win Deep South votes (but not Peripheral South votes), was not a racist. He had supported previous civil rights bills but opposed the 1964 measure's intrusion into private business decisions. His pitch to Southerners was carefully worded, even libertarian—though the Blacks argue that he and his advisers knew they were simultaneously playing to racist sentiment.
By the mid-1960s, most white Southerners had moved away from their previously held segregationist views toward a position "somewhere in between segregation and integration" that reflected the moral triumph of the civil rights movement. Republicans such as Dwight Eisenhower and, later, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan capitalized on this shift by calling for equal opportunity before the law while opposing (at least during their campaigns) government actions such as forced busing and quotas. Both segregationist and integrationist Democrats found themselves outside the emerging Southern (and national) consensus.
The Blacks are quick to concede that many issues besides civil rights are at work in the Southern shift toward the GOP. But certainly Republican opposition to quotas, busing, and other federal government impositions was a crucial component of the "Southern Strategy." As Theodore White predicted in The Making of the President 1960: "If [Republicans] adopt a civil rights program only moderately more restrained than the Democrats, the South can be theirs for the asking; and with the South…could come such solid addition of electoral strength as would make Republicans again, as they were for half a century, the majority party of the nation and the semipermanent stewards of the national executive party."
Majority-party status still eludes the GOP, but White's prediction has substantially come true. The party's previous period of executive dominance trailed off after a vigorous third-party challenge in 1912 and poor Republican stewardship of the economy during the 1920s. This year we have both. We had a brief, but potentially damaging, challenge to Bush from a third-party candidate. And we continue to suffer the economic aftershocks of Bush's new taxes and reregulation. Democrats might as well celebrate that, since they will find little else to smile about in The Vital South.
Contributing Editor John Hood is editor of Carolina Journal and a columnist for Spectator (N.C.) magazine.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Democracy in Dixie".