Winning the South

Winning the South

By Ken Johnson

Vol. 11, No. 2, 1989, pp. 1, 3-4

For Democrats, the Solid South is history. This, having been true for the national party for some time now, is becoming the case for Democrats at the state and local level as well. Yet, despite the arguments that are being made with renewed vigor by many Southern white officeholders and party leaders about the need for a change of direction, close examination of the 1988 election results from one thousand racially segregated voting precincts from seventeen major Southern cities suggests that the Democrats can win in 1992.

Democrats can actually win a majority of the Southern states in the next presidential election with only a modest increase in Southern white support if–and it’s a big if–black and Hispanic registration and turnout equals that of whites in 1992.

That surprising conclusion emerges from a recent study by the Southern Regional Council of the 1988 presidential returns and county and statewide data. The evidence suggests that a coalition victory of the Democratic Party in the South may be much closer than many Democrats believe if the region can remove the barriers of race and national origin from the political process. With equal levels of registration and voting and continued strong minority support, Democrats need only a 5 percent increase of white support–little more than their 1988 gains–to win six Southern states, a majority of the region’s votes, and the next Electoral College.

In such a scenario, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas would move to the Democratic column.

In the eleven states of the Old South, black and Hispanic registration and voter turnout have generally been between 10 and 12 percent below white levels in

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recent years. No exact data is available because registration and turnout information is notoriously unreliable in some Southern states and is not broken down by race in others. Moreover, surveys such as the one taken every two years by the Census Bureau probably overstate black registration and voting.

How can such predictions be made in the face of recent arguments by many white Southern Democrats that the party must adapt itself to the conservative nature of white voters if it ever wants to win the presidency again?

The answer is that Democrats in the South actually did better in 1988 in gaining new white voters than they did in turning out black voters. Our study of one thousand Southern voting precincts shows that Democrats increased their white vote by almost 4 percent over 1984, but lost more than 20 percent of black voters.

The analysis shows that Democratic gains in predominantly white precincts were canceled out by a sharp decline in votes since 1984 in the majority black precincts. In fact, in all but eight of 458 precincts with 90 percent or more black voters, Michael Dukakis got fewer black votes in 1988 than Walter Mondale did in 1984.

The point is tricky, so listen carefully.

Data from the SRC study agrees with the exit polls that there was no significant decline in the percentage of blacks voting Democratic from 1984 to 1988. In fact, a precinct-by-precinct analysis shows an amazing sameness in the percentages of Democratic support over the four years. In Little Rock, for instance, the percentage of Democratic votes cast in black precincts was 86.96 percent in 1988, compared to 85.77 percent in 1984. In Birmingham, nineteen majority black precincts showed a level of Democratic support of 96.85 percent in 1988 and 96.17 percent in 1984. See Table 1.

Table 1: Percent of Democratic Voting in Black Precincts in Presidential Elections

City Percent Democratic Voting
1984 1988
Birmingham 96.17 96.85
Huntsville 93.66 92.12
Montgomery 98.10 96.71
Little Rock 85.77 86.96
Miami 95.24 94.35
Atlanta 95.10 94.65
Augusta 97.11 95.99
New Orleans 94.59 95.82
Jackson 95.38 96.80
Charlotte 95.70 95.34
Greensboro 96.29 96.49
Columbia 86.52 97.51
Chattanooga 83.55 83.90
Memphis 96.47 96.40
Houston 96.90 97.19
Norfolk 90.88 89.45
17 City Total 95.10 95.30

Black Registration Fell

What changed? The answer is that fewer blacks registered and fewer blacks went to the polls.

In eleven of seventeen major cities surveyed, black registration has declined since 1984, and in sixteen of seventeen cities, black voter turnout also fell sharply. At the same time, white registration in some Southern cities increased, with a smaller drop–about 5 percent–than blacks in actual voting.

Democratic gains among white urban voters in 1988 in the South were nullified, by and large, by the party’s failure to increase the actual number of black votes. In Houston, for example, an increase of about 5,000 Democratic votes in predominantly white precincts was allowed up by a loss of about 24,000 black votes.

Although the Democrats carried no Southern state, their ticket made actual gains among white voters in Southern cities between 1984 and 1988. In fifteen of the seventeen surveyed cities, the percentage of white votes for Dukakis was higher than the percentage for Mondale. In Miami, the Democratic vote in predominantly white precincts increased from 21.65 percent in 1984 to more than 27 percent in 1988. In New Orleans, the increase was from 19 percent to 25.45 percent. Even in Houston, George Bush’s hometown, the Democrats increased their percentages of white voters from 22 percent in 1984 to 28 percent in 1988, and in all 95 white precincts, Dukakis got a larger percentage than did Mondale. In Greensboro, N.C., all fourteen white precincts enlarged their Democratic support and three of the white precincts were carried by Dukakis.

Suburban Registration Gains

However, countywide data also reveals that registration in predominantly white suburban counties of the South–where Republicans show strength–increased at a much faster rate since 1984 than the rates in urban and rural counties–where Democrats do well. These trends indicate that suburban counties which vote heavily Republican will become the most substantial voting influence in statewide elections in the South in the near future because their registration rates are increasing even faster than their population, in comparison with urban and rural areas.

Steve Suitts, the executive director of the SRC, suggests that “Republicans appear to understand the politics of Southern numbers better nowadays than do Democrats. Not only have the Republicans sponsored more aggressive registration efforts in areas of their voting strength, but they seem to understand the critical importance of minority voting in the South’s future presidential elections.”

South Carolinian Lee Atwater, the new Republican National Chairman, has said that his first priority is to win blacks to the GOP.

“Our analysis suggests that this interest in black votes is probably not the result of a political party’s soul-searching decision to seek a kinder, gentler, and more integrated constituency as much as it is a realistic political strategy to win future presidential elections in the South,” said Suitts.

The SRC analysis finds that if Republicans increase their minority support in the South by 6 percent, Democrats would have to increase their Southern white support by 11 percent–at current levels of minority voter participation–to win most of the Southern states. Obviously, such gains

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by Democrats in the South seem unrealistic.

New Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown understands these issues, because he was chairman of the party’s task force on voting rights and voter participation in 1987. The task force report called for substantial improvements in voter participation among minority groups. However, Brown has been so far a lightning rod for white Southern Democrats who claim that he is a symbol of the reasons why white Democrats are defecting to the GOP.

Democrats must take a hard look at the bushwhacking they got on Super Tuesday. The nation’s only regional primary did not prompt especially high levels of participation by Southern voters. Instead, it allowed “the illusion of a mandate for its candidates, while whites who stayed home on March 8 were far more willing to turn out on November 8,” said Suitts.

In some Southern cities, white voting in the general election was three times larger than on Super Tuesday. In thirteen of seventeen cities the turnout in white precincts in November was more than double the turnout on Super Tuesday. Meanwhile, in only one city did the black turnout increase by 100 percent or more. “Quite clearly,” says Suitts, “Super Tuesday did not coalesce white voters for any candidate in the Democratic Party.”

Black Votes Can’t Be Taken for Granted

It seems just as clear that Democrats cannot take black votes for granted; even if blacks continue to lean toward Democratic policies, the Democratic Party cannot assume an actual increase in support. As in the past, Democrats must address the issues of registration and turnout of their most loyal voters if they are to depend on them, in part, for victory at the polls.

At a time when the Republican Party has made black support a priority, the party of George Bush must realize that it begins that effort with more of a disadvantage than did Ronald Reagan, whose unpopularity among blacks now works against Bush.

The Republican voting strength in the South has been established solidly in suburban areas, and voter registration in the South has accelerated over the past four years. In fact, at current rates of registration growth, the suburban influence in Southern states will only increase.

The Democratic Party’s future in the South in presidential politics hangs on urban and rural areas, on the party’s ability to increase minority political participation to a level equal to that of white voters, and on attracting a small percentage of additional whites.

It is a future which the party has not yet fully recognized despite current Republican efforts to foil such a strategy before it takes root. It is a future that is entirely possible for the Democrats in 1992, though their past performance suggests they will have great difficulty in realizing it.

The complete report, “Winning the South in 1992: A New Analysis of the 1988 Presidential Election,” with all tables, charts and notes, is available for $35 from the Southern Regional Council, 60 Walton St., NW, Atlanta, GA 30303. (404) 522-8764. The report is by SRC staff members Ken Johnson, Steve Suitts, Betty McKibben, and Dorothy Dix.

Ken Johnson is program director of the Southern Regional Council and the co-author of “Winning the South in 1992: A New Analysis of the 1988 Presidential Election.” His article is adapted from that report.