As regular readers of this blog know, there is no political subject that fascinates me more than party politics in my native South–both the historical question of how the region became “red,” and the immediate question of whether and how Democrats can become more competitive.Earlier this week a colleague sent me a book review that provides a good excuse for revisiting that first, historical topic. The New Republic‘s Clay Risen reviewed The End of Southern Exceptionalism for the Boston Globe, and concluded that the book offers fresh evidence that economics, not race, was the central factor in the rise of southern Republicanism.I’ve ordered, but have not yet received, a copy of the book, written by Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin and Richard Johnston of the University of British Columbia. But the surprising thing to me about Risen’s review is that the book’s hypothesis seems to be so controversial, “one that few observers of the postwar South will agree with.”This is not to say I believe in a purely economic interpretation of the South’s Republican resurgence, but given the apparent supremacy of a purely racial interpretation, it’s a good corrective.Certainly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were decisive events in breaking down the ancient alliance between the National Democratic Party and a whites-only regional Democratic Party that had dominated most of the South since the Civil War. But the civil rights revolution did not necessarily, and did not in fact destroy state and local Democratic parties. And if you look at the dynamics of two-party competition in the South, even today, the picture is too complicated to support the claim that race, or any other one factor, has caused the rise of southern Republicanism.My own informed-amateur “wave theory” of party politics in the South places great emphasis on the efforts of each party, and especially my own Democratic Party, to constantly create and recreate new coalitions, depending on the demographics of individual states. But this improvisational coalition-building was a big part of the originial post-World-War-II Republican effort to create a viable two-party system in the South.According to Risen, Shafer and Johnston focus on the rapid urbanization that occured thoughout much of the region from the 1940s through the 1960s, which created a self-conscious urban and suburban white middle-class that voted Republican just like similar places elsewhere (indeed, a heavy in-migration of already-Republican voters from the northeast and midwest, already a large factor in Florida in the 1940s, spread throughout southern suburbs in later decades). But in four states, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia, there was already a sizable Republican voter base among Appalachian whites (until quite recently, the very poorest people in America) who had been voting that way since the Civil War. The pre-Civil Rights strength of Republicans in any given state was largely a function of the size of these two very different elements of the population. Moreover, states with few Appalachian voters and smaller cities and suburbs had weak Republican Parties that did ultimately depend on their occasional success in reaching large numbers of rural white voters through race-based appeals.It should come as no surprise, then, to discover how well Eisenhower did in relatively-urbanized states like Florida (which he carried twice) or Texas (won in 1956), and in states with both growing suburbs and cities and Appalachian pockets (Tennessee and Virginia, which he won twice, and North Carolina, where he narrowly lost twice). In 1960, Richard Nixon, then considered a liberal on racial issues by southern standards, did nearly as well in precisely the same places.This complicated picture was confirmed, not obliterated, by Barry Goldwater’s race-based rural southern breakthrough in 1964. Although he swept the Deep South, he lost all the border states, including those carried by Ike and Nixon, and even within the states he carried, he ran behind the previous GOP candidates in many urban and suburban areas.At both the presidential level and–especially–the state and local level, Republican fortunes have ebbed and flowed according to the same shifting of coalitions in the ensuing decades. And even in the contemporary era, where Republicans have an advantage in most, though not all, statewide elections in most of the region, the components vary from state to state. In places like South Carolina and Mississippi, the party system represents a widespread racial polarization, and you can definitely say the basic partisan dynamics point straight back to the civil rights revolution. But in my own home state of Georgia, while race has been a factor, the explosive growth of the suburban population has clearly tilted the state to the GOP, which also means the Democratic counter-trend that has so often set in as suburbs mature could be a big factor in Georgia’s political future.In other words, there is no universal theory that really explains the past, present or future or southern politics, and that is why I am more optimistic than most in predicting that Republican hegemony in the South is far less than inevitable or permanent.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
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By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.