In American politics, the “southern strategy” refers to efforts by the Republican Party and its candidates to win presidential elections since 1964 by appealing to conservative whites (especially white southerners) disaffected with the Democratic Party by its strong embrace of civil rights laws in the 1960s and its racially egalitarian policies since.
While racial discrimination existed nationwide before 1960, it was especially pervasive and severe in the South. Region-wide, but especially in the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina), the politically and economically dominant white population enforced segregated schools, neighborhoods, and public establishments, severe discrimination in jobs and housing, and denial of voting rights for blacks. Virtually all southern Democratic politicians favored racial segregation and antiblack discrimination; candidates that did not were unelectable. Meanwhile, most white southerners vilified Republicans as the party of the Union cause during the Civil War and of the hated Reconstruction era, when federal troops occupied southern states after the war. From 1932 into the 1940s, the Democratic Party’s majority coalition nationwide was owed in part to intense Democratic loyalties among most white southerners.
Such support remained strong as long as Democrats did not push aggressively for civil rights for blacks. But in 1948 Democratic Party convention delegates supported this plank in the party platform: “The Democratic Party commits itself to continuing efforts to eradicate all racial, religious, and economic discrimination.” In vehement opposition, delegate Strom Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina, stalked out of the convention, leading other Deep South delegates in tow (Edsall and Edsall 1991, p. 34). The dissidents formed the States’ Rights Democratic (“Dixiecrat”) Party, with Thurmond as their presidential candidate. The Dixiecrats carried several southern states in 1948, serving early notice to the national Democratic Party that aggressive action on civil rights would result in the party losing much white southern support. In 1954 Thurmond won a U.S. Senate seat from his native South Carolina; in 1964, he switched to the Republican Party.
1960 TO 1964: RACIAL ISSUES REEMERGE, AND REPUBLICANS MOVE TO THE RIGHT
During the 1950s events such as the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling ordering schools to desegregate (Brown v. Board of Education ) and the 1957 crisis attending the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, kept civil rights issues on the national agenda. However, the Democratic and Republican parties equivocated on civil rights issues, until 1964. That year, President Lyndon B. Johnson and northern members of Congress from both parties overcame fierce southern Democratic opposition to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregated public places, including most private businesses, and banned employment discrimination. Meanwhile, Republicans moved sharply rightward on racial issues (Carmines and Stimson 1989), nominating Arizona senator Barry Goldwater for the presidency in 1964. Far more conservative on racial issues than previous Republican candidates had been, Goldwater argued forcefully against the Civil Rights Act, emphasizing his view that proper jurisdiction over civil rights policy lay with the states, not the federal government. Goldwater’s argument was not openly racist: He neither vilified blacks nor made openly segregationist appeals, as Thurmond and other southern Democratic politicians had for decades. Nonetheless, Goldwater’s position was enormously attractive to white southerners enraged by the national Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights laws. President Johnson won a landslide reelection over Goldwater in 1964. But Goldwater carried five Deep South states that had not voted Republican in presidential elections since Reconstruction. The Democratic lock on the South was broken, and issues and developments after 1964 would continue to erode white southerners’ loyalty toward the Democratic Party.
The southern strategy, then, first emerged in 1964 to attract white southerners by positioning the Republican Party as the new political home for racial conservatism (Carmines and Stimson 1989). Columnist Robert Novak (1965) described the southern strategy as encompassing staunch anti-Communism in foreign affairs and conservative appeals for a less activist federal government in domestic affairs, and deemphasizing civil rights without endorsing racial segregation or discrimination, to attract white southerners but avoid alienating moderate whites with raw racial appeals. After 1964 the southern strategy flowered, but with a changing issue focus, favoring more covertly racial issues such as social welfare programs, “law and order,” school busing, and, in the 1980s, affirmative action and violent crime.
By 1968 Republicans were refining their 1964 appeals and discourse and extending them to new issues. In 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, throwing the federal government’s full weight into guaranteeing voting rights for southern blacks. The next three years were tumultuous, seeing the rise of black militant groups and major riots in Los Angeles (1965), Detroit (1967), and many other cities in 1966 and following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. After another assassination—that of Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy—the 1968 Democratic National Convention met in Chicago. Chaotic scenes of police beating demonstrators in Chicago’s streets and parks echoed the tumult within the convention hall, as the party’s delegates splintered over the issue of continuing the Vietnam War. Republicans sought to capitalize on the turbulence of the late 1960s by calling for “law and order.” This appeal resonated strongly with conservative whites nationally, but especially white southerners. By 1965 almost all American homes had televisions, and televised footage of urban riots, assassinations, antiwar protests, black militant groups, recreational drug use and sexual activity among young people, and unrest at the Democratic Party convention fostered perceptions that under Democratic governance the nation and the social fabric were unraveling at the seams.
Guided by former Thurmond political advisor Harry Dent, the 1968 Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, sent unmistakable signals of sympathy to white southerners. Meeting with southern Republican delegates, Nixon supported limiting federal government intrusion into their region’s affairs. He assured them his administration would not “ram anything down your throats,” said he opposed school busing, promised to appoint “strict constructionists” to the Supreme Court, and opposed federal intervention in local school affairs (Carmines and Stimson 1989, p. 53). Nixon’s candidacy was complicated by the American Independent Party candidacy of former Alabama governor George Wallace, who also appealed to white southerners with a populist, antigovernment, “law and order” campaign. Although Wallace carried several southern states, Nixon eked out a win in a divided nation exhausted by war in Vietnam and rocked by protests, assassinations and violence, and racial unrest at home.
During the Nixon presidency directly racial issues, such as school busing, and covertly racial issues, such as social welfare spending, assumed center stage. Controversies over school busing arose owing to court rulings such as the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision requiring busing to achieve racial integration. Nixon won a landslide reelection in 1972, winning every southern state. Later Republican candidates continued to make covert racial appeals toward conservative whites nationwide, but especially conservative southern whites. Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 campaign with a speech emphasizing “states’ rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the kidnapping and murder of three civil rights workers had shocked and galvanized the nation in 1964. Reagan also made racially charged remarks about “welfare queens” in stump speeches, tried to dismantle the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, opposed affirmative action programs, and advocated cutting federal aid to cities and social programs that especially benefited blacks.
In 1988 George H.W. Bush’s campaign portrayed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as “soft” on violent crime in a racially charged campaign designed by Republican advisors including Lee Atwater, a native South Carolinian, protégé of Harry Dent, and former campaign director for Republican U.S. Senator (and 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate) Thurmond. The campaign featured the story of William “Willie” Horton, a black convict who, released from prison on a weekend furlough (a controversial program supported by Massachusetts governor Dukakis), escaped to Maryland, where he attacked a couple in their home. Republican strategists openly exploited the Horton case, with one TV ad showing a sinister and unruly-looking Horton in police custody. Political scientists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders (1996) and Tali Mendelberg (2001) demonstrate that the effect (if not the intent) of the Horton campaign was to stoke white fears of black violence and criminality for political gain. Atwater promised that “by the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name.” Later, he said “the Horton case is one of those gut issues that are value issues, particularly in the South, and if we hammer at these over and over, we are going to win.”
In the four presidential elections between 1992 and 2004 racial issues have receded in importance, and moral and religious issues have become more prominent. These developments have fueled continued Republican realignment among white southerners, but generally for reasons remotely related to race. As the first southern conservative president since Andrew Jackson (Lind 2003), George W. Bush has enjoyed very high approval ratings from white southerners. Bush’s social conservatism and eager use of force overseas since the September 11, 2001, attacks resonate strongly with the militarism (Nisbett and Cohen 1996) and social and religious conservatism (Smith 1997; Green et al. 2003) common among white southerners. For Democrats, the region is now forbidding territory. In the seven presidential elections since 1980, Republican candidates have swept every southern state four times (1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004), and won all but one southern state, Georgia, in 1980. In 1992 and 1996 Arkansas native Bill Clinton carried some southern states, but most southern electoral votes still went to the Republicans.
The southern strategy, launched in 1964 and refined with a panoply of racially charged issues from 1968 to 1988 and other, generally less race-related, issues since 1992, has borne fruit for Republicans. Most white southerners are now reliably Republican in voting for president, and increasingly in voting for Congress and state offices as well. Meanwhile, as reported by Mike Allen in the Washington Post (2005), Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman tacitly admitted the racial basis of the southern strategy. In prepared remarks to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Mehlman acknowledged that “some Republicans [were] trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” adding that “we were wrong” and calling it “not healthy for the country for the political parties to be so racially polarized.”
Still, southern Republicans may be continuing efforts to polarize the party system by race. The Republican-led 2003 redistricting in Texas has nearly eliminated white Democrats in Texas’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation. After the 2004 election, Texas’s U.S. House delegation had eleven Democrats—one white and ten black or Latino—and twenty-one Republicans—one Latino and twenty white. Similarly, in 2005 Georgia Republicans passed a controversial “Voter ID” law requiring would-be voters to show a driver’s license or other state-issued photo identification. Georgia’s black lawmakers walked out of the statehouse in angry protest over the law’s passage. Civil rights groups charged the law would disproportionately suppress black voting, since blacks are less likely to own cars and thus have drivers’ licenses. The law required those without drivers’ licenses to purchase a state-issued identification card, but at offices that were scarce in heavily-black Atlanta. An injunction, passed later in the year, blocked the law from further being enforced.
SEE ALSO Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Dixiecrats; Nixon, Richard M.; Reagan, Ronald; Republican Party; Thurmond, Strom
Allen, Mike. 2005. RNC Chief to Say It Was “Wrong” to Exploit Racial Conflict for Votes. Washington Post, July 14: A4.
Carmines, Edward, and James Stimson. 1989. Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Edsall, Thomas Byrne, and Mary D. Edsall. 1991. Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics. New York: Norton.
Green, John C., James Guth, Lyman Kellstedt, and Corwin Smidt. 2003. The Soul of the South: Religion and Southern Politics at the Millennium. In The New Politics of the Old South, 2nd ed., eds. Charles Bullock III and Mark Rozell, 283–298. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Kinder, Donald R., and Lynn M. Sanders. 1996. Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lind, Michael. 2003. Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics. New York: Basic Books.
Mendelberg, Tali. 2001. The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Nisbett, Richard, and Dov Cohen. 1996. Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Novak, Robert. 1965. The Agony of the GOP, 1964. New York: Macmillan.
Smith, Oran P. 1997. The Rise of Baptist Republicanism. New York: New York University Press.