Deep South Votes With Feet, Not With Hart
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1984, pp. 4-5
According to a Southern Regional Council analysis of 106 targeted voting precincts in Alabama and Georgia, black voters in these two states turned out in almost unprecedented numbers in the March 13 presidential primary while whites generally stayed away from the polls.
The SRC study, the first-detailed examination of actual voting patterns of the March 13 election in the two states, showed that almost half of all predominantly black precincts had more than fifty percent of their registered voters turn out on election day. The highest turnouts in black precincts were found in places such as Wilcox County, Alabama; Thomas County, Georgia; and Albany, Georgia.
In contrast, almost three out of five of all predominantly white precincts in the study showed turnout rates below thirty percent. The turnout in predominantly white precincts was lowest in rural areas such as Worth County, Georgia and Choctaw County, Alabama.
“On election day some counties witnessed both the highest and lowest rates of turnout seen in primary elections in and lowest rates of turnout seen in primary elections in decades,” says Steve Suitts, SRC director and author of the study. In Greene County, Alabama, for example, a predominantly white precinct turned out at a rate of only fifteen percent while a nearby voting precinct with a majority of black registered voters turned out at a rate of sixty-three percent. In Albany, Georgia one precinct turned out at a rate of less than ten percent while two predominantly black precincts voted at a rate of more than eighty percent.
While primary elections usually have smaller rates of voter turnout, a few black precincts showed turnout rates higher in the primary election than in the 1980 general election. While only fifty-three percent of the voters in a predominantly black precinct in Thomas County turned out in 1980 to vote for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, sixty-nine percent came out in the March 13th primary.
The SRC study also found that presidential candidate Gary Hart led all other candidates on March 13th in attracting white voters. Hart carried twenty of the fifty-two predominantly white precincts studied in the report. (John Glenn carried nineteen precincts and Walter Mondale won eleven precincts targeted for the study).
Hart attracted support in a variety of white precincts. He carried the urban, white, liberal precinct of Morningside in Atlanta, a predominantly white, strongly conservative precinct in Choctaw County, Alabama, and a white, strongly democratic precinct in Rome, Georgia. Yet, Hart was also strong in the targeted white precincts in Georgia which Ronald Reagan carried in 1980.
“The strength of Gary Hart in white voting districts has Lo be balanced by the failure of a large percentage of whites to vote in the primary election,” Suitts says. “Most whites–unlike blacks–voted with their feet by staying home. Apparently, their candidate was not on the ballot in the Democratic primary.”
The large turnout of black voters evidently was motivated by Jesse Jackson’s candidacy which received the lion’s share of the votes in black precincts. In the SRC study,
Jackson carried more than four out of five of all majority black precincts. “And usually by margins of more than twenty percentage points.” While Jackson’s largest margins of victory were in rural precincts, he also did well in urban areas. In precincts such as Morehouse College in Atlanta where a larger number of black students vote, Jackson received eighty-nine percent of the precinct vote.
Jesse Jackson also carried some predominantly white precincts. In the SRC study, two of the fifty-two precincts with a majority of white registered voters were won by Jackson. In a fifty-five percent white precinct in Camilla, Georgia, Jackson received thirty-five percent of the vote–more than any of his competitors–and in Waynesboro, Georgia the precinct where almost two out of three voters are white, Jackson received the largest vote with thirty-four percent of the total.
“Given trends elsewhere,” Suitts observes, “Jackson’s victory in these white precincts is probably the result of a high black turnout and a low white turnout within the precinct itself. The result was a plurality victory in white precincts for Jackson.”
Walter Mondale carried the other remaining black precincts although only in a few places in Alabama did he receive more than fifty percent of the vote of the precinct. His strongest showings in black precincts were in Birmingham where Mayor Richard Arrington, the city’s first black mayor, had endorsed Mondale and in other places such as Montgomery and Choctaw County, where the Alabama Democratic Conference–the state’s largest black political group–has a strong presence. “Mondale was able to reverse the tidal wave of Jackson support in black precincts only when-there were exceptionally well-organized black groups working for Mondale,” Suitts says.
Gary Hart and John Glenn carried no predominantly black precinct included in the study.
While Walter Mondale carried both Georgia and Alabama, the precinct study shows his support was seldom strong in any one precinct. Usually, Mondale carried a precinct with less than forty percent of the vote. At the same time, Mondale was able to receive some important support in all precincts. In all 106 surveyed precincts, Mondale always received at least eleven percent of the vote. “Mondale’s strength which gave him enough votes to win the two states was in its breadth and not its depth of support.” Suitts says.
For more information on the study, contact the SRC office.