Not only is there diversity in the South; the region is also changing. Its rate of evolution may seem glacial, but fundamental shifts in the conditions underlying its politics are taking place.—V. O. Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949) 1
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For decades, political scientists conducted election studies in which they singled out the American South because its politics was different. Generations of southern Democrats held office amidst a feeble Republican opposition, and, for many, more often than not there was no Republican challenger. During these days of the “Solid South,” it seemed reasonable to omit the region from a political analysis because there was no point in studying a constant; Democratic electoral dominance across all levels of office-holding, from bottom to top, was nearly complete. But eventually things changed. Starting with presidential elections in the 1950s, the moribund southern Republican Party began its gradual rise. Now, things have changed so much that the South is once again exceptional, but this time because it is so overwhelmingly Republican.2
This essay surveys the partisan transformation of southern politics. It begins with the unrivaled status of southern Democrats. Next, using the lens of presidential elections and how they structure the positions of the parties on major issues, is a chronicle of the long ascent of the southern gop. The essay concludes with a brief discussion of the near-and long-term electoral prospects for both parties. In the immediate future it seems that Republican dominance will persist, but a longer time horizon bodes well for Democrats as demographic changes favor their party.
The Solid South: The Democratic Past
Whether it was through the use of constitutional conventions or routine legislative processes, by institutionalizing numerous disenfranchising laws all across the South, Democrats successfully enacted a voting apparatus that served a singular purpose—the creation of an electorate whose participants would favor the Democratic Party. The highly unrepresentative and restricted electorate that southern Democrats created ensured their political monopoly for over half a century.3
The fruits of southern Democrats’ labor to establish and maintain a one-party system can be prominently displayed with data on U.S. House elections. These contests are an excellent barometer for depicting party strength because all U.S. House seats are up for election every two years and the number of southern congressional districts is large (typically over a hundred for any decennial census). Figure 1 shows the percentage of Democratic and Republican U.S. House seats in the South from 1868 to 2010. We will revisit this figure in the next section that explains Republican ascendancy, but for now it is worth noting the astounding dominance of the Democratic Party from 1898 to 1948—a roughly flat line of Democratic control of the southern U.S. House delegation. During these fifty years the lowest Democratic share of southern U.S. House seats was 93 percent in 1920.
We also see that Democratic rule in House contests begins in 1874, but it isn’t [End Page 96] consolidated until after the Populist revolt of the 1890s, when we see a marked dip in Democratic House seats in the 1896 election. The mid-1870s to the late 1890s, when southern Democrats are institutionalizing Jim Crow and enacting disfranchising laws, is captured in Figure 1, because House contests highlight this lengthy interlude when southern Democrats are engaged in locking down their one-party system.