Dan O'Donnell

Dan O'Donnell

Common Sense Central is edited by WISN's Dan O'Donnell. Dan provides unique conservative commentary and analysis of stories that the mainstream media...Full Bio


The Myth of the Republican-Democrat 'Switch'

When faced with the sobering reality that Democrats supported slavery, started the Civil War when the abolitionist Republican Party won the Presidency, established the Ku Klux Klan to brutalize newly freed slaves and keep them from voting, opposed the Civil Rights Movement, modern-day liberals reflexively perpetuate rather pernicious myth--that the racist southern Democrats of the 1950s and 1960s became Republicans, leading to the so-called "switch" of the parties.

This is as ridiculous as it is easily debunked.   

The Republican Party, of course, was founded in 1848 with the abolition of slavery as its core mission. Almost immediately after its second presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the 1860 election, Democrat-controlled southern states seceded on the assumption that Lincoln would destroy their slave-based economies.

Once the Civil War ended, the newly freed slaves as expected flocked to the Republican Party, but Democrat control of the South from Reconstruction until the Civil Rights Era was near total.  In 1960, Democrats held every Senate seat south of the Mason-Dixon line.  In the 13 states that made up the Confederacy a century earlier, Democrats held a staggering 117-8 advantage in the House of Representatives.  The Democratic Party was so strong in the south that those 117 House members made up a full 41% of Democrats' 283-153 advantage in the Chamber.

Likewise, throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Democratic governors and overwhelmingly Democratic State Legislatures controlled the South, which steadfastly opposed the push for civil rights. In contrast, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, openly praised school desegregation in the Brown v. Board of Education decision and sent federalized Arkansas National Guard troops to Little Rock to protect nine black students after Democratic Governor Orval Faubus threatened to keep them out of a previously all-white high school.

Eisenhower was a phenomenally popular war hero when he was elected in 1952, and even though only one Republican had ever before won any southern states in the Electoral College (Herbert Hoover in 1928), Eisenhower began to make inroads for the Republican Party; winning Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee.  In his landslide victory four years later, Eisenhower picked up Louisiana and Kentucky.

His personal appeal, though, didn't transcend the Democratic Party's hold on the South, and when he left office in 1961, that hold was arguably stronger than it had been in decades.  As Southern Democrats clung to traditional segregation, though, the rest of the country was changing, and the push for civil rights had begun.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy--a strong proponent of civil rights--in late 1963, Southern Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson saw it as his mission to pass the Civil Rights Act as a tribute to Kennedy, who had first proposed the bill five months before he was killed.  Democrats in the Senate, however, filibustered it.

In June of 1964, though, the bill came up again, and it passed...over the strenuous objections of Southern Democrats.  80% of House Republicans voted for the measure, compared with just 61% of Democrats, while 82% of Republicans in the Senate supported it, compared with 69% of Democrats.

Nearly all of the opposition was, naturally, in the South, which was still nearly unanimously Democratic and nearly unanimously resistant to the changing country.  One thing that most assuredly didn't change, though, was party affiliation.  A total of 21 Democrats in the Senate opposed the Civil Rights Act.  Only one of them, "Dixiecrat" Strom Thurmond, ever became a Republican.  The rest, including Al Gore, Sr. and Robert Byrd--a former Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan--remained Democrats until the day they died.

Moreover, as those 20 lifelong Democrats retired, their Senate seats remained in Democrat hands for several decades afterwards.  So too did the overwhelming majority of the House seats in the South until 1994, when a Republican wave election swept the GOP into control of the House for the first time since 1952.  1994 was also the first time Republicans ever held a majority of House seats in the South--a full 30 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  

From there, Republicans gradually built their support in the South until two more wave elections in 2010 and 2014 gave them the overwhelming majorities they enjoy today.   

If this was a sudden "switch" to the Republican Party for the old Democrat segregationists, it sure took a long time to happen.

The reality is that it didn't.  After the 1964 election--the first after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the opportune time for racist Democrat voters to abandon the party in favor of Republicans--Democrats still held a 102-20 House majority in states that had once been part of the Confederacy.  In 1960, remember, that advantage was 117-8.  A pickup of 12 seats (half of them in Alabama) is hardly the massive shift one would expect if racist voters suddenly abandoned the Democratic Party in favor of the GOP. 

In fact, voting patterns in the South didn't really change all that much after the Civil Rights era. Democrats still dominated Senate, House, and gubernatorial elections for decades afterward.  Alabama, for example, didn't elect a Republican governor until 1986. Mississippi didn't elect one until 1991. Georgia didn't elect one until 2002.

In the Senate, Republicans picked up four southern Senate seats in the 1960s and 1970s, while Democrats also picked up four.  Democratic incumbents won routinely.  If anything, those racist southern voters kept voting Democrat.

So how did this myth of a sudden "switch" get started?

It's rooted in an equally pernicious myth of the supposedly racist "Southern Strategy" of Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, which was accused of surreptitiously exploiting the innate racism of white southern voters.

Even before that, though, modern-day Democrats point to the 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater, who refused to back the 1964 Civil Rights Act as proof that the GOP was actively courting racist southern voters.  After all, they argue, Goldwater only won six states--his home state of Arizona and five states in the deep south.  His "States' Rights" platform had to be code for a racist return to a segregated society, right?

Hardly.  Goldwater was actually very supportive of civil rights for black Americans, voting for the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts and even helping to found Arizona's chapter of the NAACP.  His opposition to the 1964 Act was not at all rooted in racism, but rather in a belief that it allowed the federal government to infringe on state sovereignty.

The Lyndon B. Johnson campaign pounced on Goldwater's position and, during the height of the 1964 campaign, ran an ad titled "Confessions of a Republican," which rather nonsensically tied Goldwater to the Ku Klux Klan (which, remember, was a Democratic organization).

The ad helped Johnson win the biggest landslide since 1920 and for the first time showed Democrats that accusing Republicans of being racist (even with absolutely no evidence to back this up) was a potent political weapon.

It would not be the last time they used it.

Four years later, facing declining popularity ratings and strong primary challenges from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, Johnson decided not to run for re-election.  As protests over the Vietnam War and race riots following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. raged in America's streets, Republican Richard Nixon, the former Vice President, launched a campaign based on promises of "restoring law and order." 

With the southerner Johnson out of the race and Minnesota native Hubert Humphrey as his opponent, Nixon saw an opportunity to win southern states that Goldwater had, not through racism, but through aggressive campaigning in an area of the country Republicans had previously written off.

Yet it didn't work.  For all of Nixon's supposed appeals to southern racists (who still voted for Democrats in Senate and House races that same year), he lost almost all of the south to a Democrat--George Wallace, who ran on the American Independent ticket and won five states and 46 electoral votes.

It shouldn't have been surprising that Nixon ran competitively in the South, though.  He carried 32 states and won 301 electoral votes.  Four years later, he won every state except Massachusetts.  Was it because of his racism?  Had he laid the groundwork for racist appeals by Republicans for generations to come?

Of course not.  The supposedly racist southern Republicans who voted for Nixon in 1972 also voted to re-elect Democrat Senators in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.  Republicans gained only eight southern seats in the House even though their presidential candidate won a record 520 electoral votes.

After Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, Democrat Jimmy Carter swept the South en route to the presidency in 1976.  Did Carter similarly run on racist themes?  Or was he simply a stronger candidate? After Ronald Reagan carried the south in two landslides (including the biggest in U.S. history in 1984) and George H.W. Bush ran similarly strongly in 1988 while promising to be a "third Reagan term," Democrat Bill Clinton split the southern states with Bush in 1992 and with Bob Dole in 1996.

All the while, Democrats kept winning House, Senate, and gubernatorial elections.  Only in 2000 did southern voters return to unanimous Electoral College support for a Republican presidential candidate.

Since then, the south has voted reliably Republican (with the exception of Florida and North Carolina) in every presidential election as it has consistently voted for Republicans in Senate, House, and Governor's races.

Yet this shift was a gradual, decades-long transition and not a sudden "shift" in response to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  Racism didn't turn the South Republican--if it did, then why did it take 30 years for those racist voters to finally give the GOP a majority of southern House seats?  Why did it take racist voters in Georgia 38 years to finally vote for a Republican governor?  And why did only one southern Democrat ever switch to the Republican Party?

The myth of the great Republican-Democrat "switch" summarily falters under the weight of actual historical analysis, and it becomes clear that prolonged electoral shifts combined with the phenomenal nationwide popularity of Republicans Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 were the real reason for the Republican strength in the south.

Reagan in particular introduced the entire nation to conservative policies that it found that it loved, sparking a new generation of Republican voters and politicians who still have tremendous influence today.

Racism had nothing to do with it.  That is simply a Democratic myth. 

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