The Consolidation of the White Southern Congressional Vote

Article excerpt

This article explores the initial desertion and continued realignment of about one-sixth of the white voters in the South who, until 1994, stood by Democratic congressional candidates even as they voted for Republican presidential nominees. Prior to 1994, a sizable share of the white electorate distinguished between Democratic congressional and presidential candidates; since 1994 that distinction has been swept away. In 1992, a majority of white southern voters was casting their ballot for the Democratic House nominee; by 1994, the situation was reversed and 64 percent cast their ballot for the Republican. Virtually all categories of voters increased their support of Republican congressional candidates in 1994 and the following elections further cement GOP congressional support in the South. Subsequent elections are largely exercises in partisanship, as the congressional votes mirror party preferences. Republicans pull nearly all GOP identifiers, most independents, and a sizeable minority of Democratic identifiers. Democrats running for Congress no longer convince voters that they are different from their party's presidential standard bearers-a group that has consistently been judged unacceptable to overwhelming proportions of the southern white electorate.

If the trend continues, the voting loyalty of southern white Democrats to House candidates will soon be on a par with that toward Democratic presidential candidates (Stanley 1988: 77).

In the long run, however, the realignment appeared certain to continue to work its way steadily downward through the political levels-from presidential voting to statewide voting to local voting . . . (Sundquist 1983: 375).

Republican gains in the South have come slowly and inconsistently. The GOP became the party of choice in presidential elections in the Rim South in the 1950s and achieved similar status in the Deep South a decade later. In 1972 for the first time in the modern era, Republicans swept the Souths Electoral College votes, a pattern that, with one exception, recurred throughout the 1980s and again in 2000.1

Yet for 30 years after Barry Goldwater became the first GOP presidential nominee to win the Deep South, carrying seven Republicans into Congress on his coattails, southerners voted heavily for conservative Republican and independent presidential candidates, while returning large numbers of Democrats to Congress and state legislatures. Then, in 1994, southern white support for Republican candidates surged to record levels enabling the GOP to achieve majority status in the region's U.S. Senate and House delegations, and make substantial gains in southern state legislatures (Black and Black 2002).

This study seeks to identify the voters who deserted Democratic congressional candidates in 1994, and determine whether this profile continued as part of the sustained GOP congressional majority in the South after 1994. Was there an across-the-board shift to the GOP or were some voters particularly attracted to Republican candidates? Contemporary analyses focused on angry white males and Christian fundamentalists as fueling the GOP upsurge. More generally, the 1994 results were interpreted as a rebuke to President Clinton and his health care initiatives. After identifying those whites most prone to change to the GOP, we offer reasons behind the shift. Since Democratic defectors have been overwhelmingly white, we focus on that group and what happened in 1994 and subsequent elections.

THE SETTING

Before 1998 the president's party invariably lost ground in mid-term elections. That alone augured for GOP gains in 1994. Republicans had made modest gains in the South in 1962, 1966, and 1978, the three most recent mid-term elections when a Democrat held the White House. The exceptional 16-seat southern shift to the GOP in 1994, constituted more seats than Republicans had gained in the three previous Democratic mid-terms combined. GOP gains were also out-of-line with expectations from retirement slumps, that had generally worked against Republican gains (Gilmour and Rothstein 1993; Caddie 1997). …