Disappearing White Democrats by Dr. Charles Bullock

Introduction: Guest Blogger–Dr. Charles Bullock 

Dr. Chuck Bullock has earned a place in the memory of every student who has ever taken his Southern Politics class.  Aside from knowing more about the subject than many an actual Southern Politician, he is a world class performer.  Certainly no one who has witnessed the occurrence will forget his impersonation of Gene Talmadge, replete with red suspenders, as his class waits for his cue to yell “Show us your galluses!”  His lectures are speckled with the peculiar stories and personalities of the South: Georgia’s Three Governors Controversy, Louisiana’s Kingfish, the madness of Lester Maddox and the courage of John Lewis.  History is not a timeline to Dr. Bullock, and political science is not summed up in charts and graphs.

Outside the classroom, Dr. Bullock is a respected and well known analyst, consultant, and author.  Georgia Trend magazine voted him one of the 100 Most Influential Georgians of 2011, and points to scores of his students who have entered the public sector in elected positions and other capacities.  His book The Triumph of Voting Rights in the South won the V.O. Key Award for Best Book on Southern Politics in 2009, an award he also won in 1993 for Runoff Elections in the United States. He is the only scholar to have won this honor twice.  He recently published a piece in The Citizen titled “The 2010 Tsunami,” which dovetails nicely with the work presented below.

With this contribution to Bowtied and Fried, Dr. Bullock offers us both history and prognostication.  As solid as the South has been at times, it has certainly experienced its share of change.  If Dr. Bullock is right, it looks like we should get ready for more.

-RCP

Disappearing White Democrats

When V. O. Key published Southern Politics and for the next generation, office holding in the South was almost the exclusive preserve of white Democrats.  Democrats held all but two of the congressional seats in the region and had sole possession of the seats in most of legislative chambers and local offices and all statewide posts when Key wrote.  States did not even bother to list the partisan identification of their officials since there would be no variation.  The only Republicans when Key wrote represented the South’s mountainous areas.  But today the southern white Democrat is well along the path toward extinction.

The species is most under threat in Congress where white Democrats have declined from 103 of 105 in 1949 to 16 of 131 today. The 2010 elections hastened the demise of the species; fewer than half as many white Democrats remain as served in the 111th Congress with twenty being replaced by Republicans.  Four white Democrats lost reelection bids in Florida and they were joined by three incumbents rejected in Virginia and two in Mississippi.  Every southern state experienced a reduction in its number of white Democrats last year. The region’s congressional contingent counts one more African-American than white Democrat along with four Hispanic Democrats from Texas.  Two of the white Democrats represent districts in which a majority of their constituents belongs to a minority group.  The five states of the Deep South have a single white Democrat, Georgia’s John Barrow.   Only two states have more than a pair of white Democrats; Florida has three and North Carolina has five.

Although it has attracted much less attention than the rout of congressional white Democrats, the 2010 elections also significantly reduced their ranks in state legislatures.  Republicans added 28 state Senate seats and 126 seats in lower chambers.  These gains gave Republicans commanding majorities in the region’s legislative chambers as they hold 56% of the Senate seats and almost 59% of the state House posts.  In 1965 when legislatures convened following the Johnson – Goldwater presidential election, Republicans had less than 6% of the region’s legislative seats.

Since Goldwater swept the Deep South, each election has seen Republicans gain legislative seats with very few exceptions.  Their primary setback came in the mid-1970s when the GOP took a one – two punch.  Their ranks thinned following Richard Nixon’s departure in disgrace from the White House.  Then two years later Jimmy Carter had the most sweeping success in the South of any Democratic presidential nominee since 1944 as he won every state except Virginia.  Those back-to-back good Democratic years reduced Republican legislative ranks by 30%.  Republicans did not recover from these loses until 1981 in lower chambers and it took until 1985 for Republicans to have as many senators as they boasted in 1973.

The Gingrich revolution of 1994 brought the first instances in which Republicans established themselves as majorities in multiple southern legislative chambers as they took control of the Florida Senate and the North and South Carolina Houses. In subsequent elections, Democrats lost their holds on legislative chambers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.  The 2010 wave election ushered in the first Republican majorities in the Alabama House and Senate and the North Carolina Senate in more than a century.  Republicans added to their ranks in other legislatures and can now claim 116 of Georgia’s House seats and 101 in Texas, the largest GOP caucuses in the South.   Today Republicans dominate both chambers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.  In addition, Republicans control the lower chambers in Louisiana and Virginia.

Republicans have not relied exclusively on the ballot box to expand their numbers.  Going back to 1964 when Strom Thurmond switched parties in order to support Barry Goldwater for president openly, Democrats have experienced erosion through conversion. Often the convert to the GOP followed the path blazed by his or her constituents.  This explanation may partially account for the nine Georgia legislators who defected from the Democratic Party in the wake of the 2010 elections.  A second factor may help explain their change in partisan loyalties.  Converts may have remained in the Democratic Party through the election hoping that Roy Barnes could win the governorship and begin rebuilding the party.  Barnes’s failure to resonate with white voters and widespread rejection when running against a candidate repeatedly battered by negative media coverage may have convinced these Democrats that the party had little prospect for more than occasional success for years.

The reduction in Democratic numbers fell almost exclusively on white Democrats.  Consequently the bulk of the Democratic caucuses are African American in both chambers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas and in the Mississippi and South Carolina Houses.

While it has taken generations to reduce white Democrats to a minority of the minority party in ten southern legislative chambers and in the congressional delegation, prospects for a rapid recovery look dim.  In seven states, Republican legislative majorities will draw the maps to be used for elections for the next decade.  The only state in which Democrats will control redistricting is Arkansas.  In Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia each party will have some influence over the process which will likely result in maps that are not biased against either party. But in seven states if Republicans carefully consider likely demographic trends for the next decade, they can craft maps that will allow them to hold the legislature until the 2020s.  As an example of what a Republican redistricting plan coupled with partisan trends could foretell, some South Carolina politicians speculate that the next election could reduce the numbers of white Democrats in the state House to no more than ten.

In the longer run, demographic changes hold out prospects for Democratic recovery although it may not restore white Democrats to their positions of dominance.  Texas is already a majority-minority state – Anglos are a plurality, not a majority.  In time Florida and Georgia are projected to also join the ranks of states in which no ethnic group constitutes a majority.  Republicans have built their electoral majorities on overwhelming support from white voters.  The GOP has yet to broaden its appeal to other ethnic groups.  As African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans increase among the ranks of voters, Republicans will confront growing difficulties in attracting enough white voters to win statewide contests.   The challenge for Republicans, if they hope to maintain their current dominance in the region, will be to articulate broader messages that will attract a sizable share of the votes from one or more minority groups.

Dr. Charles Bullock III
University of Georgia

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5 Responses to Disappearing White Democrats by Dr. Charles Bullock

  1. Angela says:

    I learned a good bit from this post on a topic I knew embarrassingly little about, thank you!

  2. JHW says:

    Excellent article! I wonder–regarding the prognostication for Republicans’ continued success in the South–if an attempt by the party to solicit minority votes by articulating broader messages would weaken the loyalty of its existing voting base? If the Republican Party across the South begins to broaden its appeal across racial and ethnic lines, does it risk alienating the largely white voting bloc it currently relies upon? How would such a broad appeal avoid coming off as half-hearted pandering? Could the Republican Party truly broaden its appeal AND remain true to the ideological foundation it currently purports? Again, thoroughly enjoyed the article and thank you!

    • RCP says:

      JHW-

      Your comment reminds me of some problems I had with Zell Miller’s book _A National Party No More_, which would show another side to this article. The book, essentially a 230 page resume about why Zell Miller is the greatest living Georgian, details the travails of this last remaining Conservative Democrat. In the stubborn and self assured tone of a mountain Georgian, Zell makes it clear that rather than have him switch party loyalty, as Strom and others did, the Democrats should simply change their views to match his! His solution was not to have Democrats maintain their ground and convince others of their views, but to simply change their entire platform in order to win the South. Your question looks at this issue from the Republican perspective: Is a party that shifts its goals for votes still the party it was? Of course not. But if you picture a world in which the Democrats follow Zell’s advice, and the Republicans follow Dr. Bullock’s, we’d be looking at another Southern Realignment, which would give everyone in Dr. Bullock’s class now something to study for the next 50 years.

  3. MCH says:

    @JHW:

    On one hand, the GOP attempting to transmit across broader rhetorical frequencies does seem to risk alienating a core contingent of conservative white southerners but, on the other hand, a good bit of fiscal policy supported by southern lawmakers doesn’t economically benefit the people who habitually keep them office anyway–sort of a “What’s the matter with Kansas” scenario in Dixie. With that in mind, might the real question be how much *cultural* slack the party faithful will allow campaigners relative to the economic slack they already turn a blind eye toward? I.e., At what point does a shift in the GOP’s political culture (away from distinctly white roots) outweigh chronic economic misrepresentation?

    Outstanding article.

  4. texshelters says:

    The title is misleading, for the disappearing white Democrats are in the Southern states and parts of the West, but not everywhere, and certainly not in California and New York, for example. Otherwise, some interesting and confirming information is here for us. Thanks.

    Peace,
    Tex Shelters

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