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by inoljt

A Regional Party Limited to the South: The Democrats in the 1920s, Part 3

9:47 am in Uncategorized by inoljt

This is the last part of three posts analyzing the Democratic Party’s struggles during the 1920s, when it lost three consecutive presidential elections by landslide margins. This will focus upon the 1928 presidential election, when the Democratic Party began to change into what it is today.

The 1928 Presidential Election

The 1928 presidential election marked the beginning of a great shift in American politics. It was when the Democratic Party started changing from a minority and fundamentally conservative organization into the party that would nominate Senator Barack Obama for president.

All this was quite far off in 1928, however. All Democrats knew was that they had just lost two landslide elections. In 1920 and 1924, the Democratic Party had won the votes of white Southerners – and nobody else. Their last candidate had won barely more than one-fourth of the vote.

In 1928 the Democratic Party tried a different strategy. It nominated Governor Al Smith of New York, the candidate of its white ethnic constituency. In the 1920 and 1924 these voters had sat out the first election, and then voted for a third-party candidate. Mr. Smith was a Tammany Hall-bred politician and a life-long New Yorker who identified as an Irish-American.

There was just one problem: Mr. Smith was not a Christian. Rather, he was a Roman Catholic who many feared would take orders from the Pope himself.

White ethnics had abandoned the Democratic Party in the two previous presidential elections. This time it was the turn of white Southerners, who voted Republican in unprecedented numbers:

White Southerners may have been willing to vote for a yellow dog for president, but many drew the line at voting for a Catholic (especially one who wanted to condemn the Klu Klux Klan and supported anti-lynching legislation).

It was Republican candidate Herbert Hoover who benefited from this. Riding a strong economy and a wave of personal popularity, Mr. Hoover defeated Mr. Smith by 17.2% – a landslide on par with President Ronald Reagan’s pummeling of Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, or Mr. Hoover’s own defeat four years later.

The Transformation of the Democratic Party

The 1928 presidential election was the first time white Southerners had abandoned the Democratic Party since the Civil War, and it signaled the beginning of a sea change in American politics.

Amidst all the Republican celebration of a third massive Republican landslide, there was one disquieting sign: Democrats won more than 50% of the vote in Massachusetts, for the first time in history. Irish-American support also gained Mr. Smith more than 50% in Rhode Island (for the first time since 1852). In New York Democrats lost by less than three percent.

Thus, while white Southerners voted more Republican than ever before in the history of the Republican Party, white ethnics in the Northeast and Midwest supported their fellow Catholic in unprecedented numbers. In 1928, both Mississippi and Massachusetts voted Democratic, as the party lost by a landslide.

In the ensuing decades, the Democratic Party’s power base would shift in a slow but sure tide towards Massachusetts and away from Mississippi. 1928 was the first time Democrats relinquished much of the White Southerner vote, but it would not be the last. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped the trend for a generation, but after him it would resume. Democrats would become the party of Massachusetts, not the party of Mississippi.

This trend started in 1928. A comparison of the 1924 and 1928 presidential elections is revealing. In 1924, Democrats still held a lock on the South, while Republicans held a lock everywhere else:

In 1928 this began changing. Democratic strength began to move away from the South, and towards the Northeast and Midwest:

This change continues to this very day.


In 1928, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Democrats were consigned to permanent minority status. They had just lost three presidential landslide elections in a row. They had not controlled a House of Congress for more than a decade.

Indeed, aside from 1912 (when two Republicans split the vote), the Democratic Party had won exactly one presidential election since 1892. They had won more than 50% of the vote just one time since the Civil War; Republicans had done so nine times during the same period.

In 1928, the Democratic Party really did seem trapped as a regional-based party which had great trouble competing outside the South. Again and again, Democratic candidates were pummeled outside the former Confederacy. When they had attempted to reach out to white ethnics in 1928, White Southerners had refused to go along.

It was a terrible Catch-22, a problem Democrats had failed to surmount for almost two generations. In the end, it would take a Great Depression for them to do so.


by inoljt

A Regional Party Limited to the South: The Democrats in the 1920s, Part 2

2:53 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

This is the second part of three posts analyzing the Democratic Party’s struggles during the 1920s, when it lost three consecutive presidential elections by landslide margins. This will focus upon the 1920 and 1924 presidential election, when white ethnic immigrants abandoned the Democratic Party.

The last part can be found here.

The 1920 Presidential Election

The Democratic Party of the early twentieth century was composed of two bases (both of which no longer vote Democratic). These were Southern whites and immigrant, often Catholic, whites from places such as Ireland and Italy. Southern whites voted Democratic due to the memory of the Civil War and could be reliably whipped up with race-baiting appeals. Immigrant ethnic whites, on the other hand, saw the Democratic Party as a vehicle of defense against the dominant, Republican-voting WASP majority in the Northeast and Midwest.

The two groups had precious little in common, save distrust of the dominant Republican Party. One of the constituencies would often only lukewarmly support the national Democratic candidate (this was usually the immigrant  camp, because without Southern whites the Democratic Party was nothing).

In 1920, ethnic whites walked out of the Democratic Party. The city machines at Tammany Hall and others did not just fail to fully back Democratic candidate James M. Cox; they outright refused to support him.

This was entirely the fault of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. The previous year, Mr. Wilson had delicately stated that:

…there is an organized propaganda against the League of Nations and against the treaty proceeding from exactly the same sources that the organized propaganda proceeded from which threatened this country here and there with disloyalty, and I want to say — I cannot say too often — any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.

If I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest I will know that I have got an enemy of the Republic.

The political stupidity of this quote cannot be overstated. The “man with a hyphen” was not just a politically influential constituency; in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin he was the Democratic Party.

This, along with Mr. Wilson making the 1920 election a referendum on his extremely unpopular League of Nations, led to the result in the map above.

Democratic candidate James M. Cox lost everywhere outside the Solid South. He got barely one-fourth of the vote in New York City, less than one-fourth in Chicago, less than one-fifth in Detroit, and so on throughout all the great non-Southern cities. In the “hyphen-heavy” states of Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, Mr. Cox failed to break the 20% mark. Even in the Solid South, Republicans broke 30% of the vote – for the first time since 1908, when disenfranchisement of blacks was complete.

All in all, Democratic candidate James M. Cox lost by 26.2% – the greatest defeat in the popular vote, ever.

The 1924 Presidential Election

In 1924, the Democratic Party nominated a man with the distinction of being more conservative than the Republican.

Little known John W. Davis was not just a social conservative who endorsed segregation – that was true for all Southern Democrats at the time – but also an economic conservative. Mr. Davis believed in small government, states rights, and would go on to oppose President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Mr. Davis was nominated as a compromise candidate after one of the longest and nastiest Democratic conventions in history – a bitter fight with immigrant whites from big cities against Southern and Western rural whites. By the time the convention had ended, it was clear that Democrats didn’t stand a chance of winning the 1924 presidential election. After Mr. Davis’s nomination, ethnic whites walked out once again.

In 1924, Democrats lost big again. They lost by more than Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan. They lost by more than Herbert Hoover against FDR. All in all, the Democratic candidate lost by the second greatest popular margin in American history, right after 1920.

Mr. Davis won between one-fourth and one-third of the votes. Southern whites stayed loyal; indeed, he did a quite bit better than Mr. Cox in 1920 in the Solid South.

White ethnics did not. In 1920 white immigrants had sat out the election. This time they voted for Governor Senator Robert La Follette, who was the only liberal candidate in the race. Mr. La Follette did better than the Democratic candidate in a dozen states.

Everybody else voted for Republican candidate Calvin Coolidge. Mr. Davis lost almost every single non-Southern city, including all five boroughs of New York (the last time a Democratic presidential candidate would lose New York). In Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco the Democratic candidate got less than 10% of the vote.

All in all, Mr. Davis failed to break 30% in more than half the states:

In the aftermath of this election – a second disastrous election in a row for Democrats – it was clear that a change in strategy was needed. For two elections in a row, Democrats had won Southern whites and nobody else.

In 1928, therefore, the Democratic Party nominated the candidate of the white ethnics to run for president. This time it was the turn of the Southern whites to walk out.


by inoljt

A Regional Party Limited to the South: The Democrats in the 1920s, Part 1

6:32 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

This is the first part of three posts analyzing the Democratic Party’s struggles during the 1920s, when it lost three consecutive presidential elections by landslide margins.

The second part can be found here.

A Regional Party Limited to the South

The biggest presidential landslides are two elections you’ve probably never heard of: the 1920 presidential election, and the 1924 presidential election.

In the 1920 presidential election, Democratic candidate James M. Cox lost by 26.2% to Republican candidate Warren G. Harding. Four years later, Democratic candidate John Davis would get barely more than one-fourth the vote in another landslide defeat. These two elections constitute the biggest victories in the popular vote in the history of American presidential elections.

In the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s victory, Democratic strategists liked to boast that the Republican Party was becoming a regional party restricted to the South. This meme has become less popular in light of Republican gains during the 2010 mid-terms, in which Republicans are expected to do quite well outside the South.

Yet during the 1920s, the Democratic Party really was a regional, Southern-based party that had great difficulty competing outside the South. It was a party that was completely unrecognizable today: a proudly racist, white supremacist organization in which its two main constituencies refused to back the same candidate not for one, not for two, but for three consecutive elections.

The story begins with World War I and President Woodrow Wilson.


by inoljt

Polarization: Past and Present

12:34 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

By: Inoljt,

A number of commentators have lamented increasing polarization in Washington. Conventional wisdom has it that America is as divided and partisan as it ever has been. Sectional divisions are tearing this country apart and preventing problems such as the deficit from being addressed; the differences between blue America and red America, in this view, are rapidly approaching crisis point.

There is some justice to this view. Polarization has probably increased, by a number of metrics, over the past few elections. Indeed, I previously noted something to this exact effect.

Let’s take another look, however, at the hypothesis, using a different type of measurement. We will consider the composition of the House of Representatives, specifically examining partisan divisions by state. Do blue states elect Republican representatives, and vice versa? In a polarized nation, this would probably not be the case.

Here is a map of a House with a Republican majority:

Polarization: Past and Present

This House was the result of 2002 congressional elections. Republicans had done well in the wake of 9/11, and they had a 232-201 majority.

In the map there are relatively few states with 80-100% of representatives from one party. Blue states elect Republicans; red states elect Democrats. Moreover; for some states (e.g. Delaware, the Dakotas) it is mathematically impossible to be less than 100% Democratic or Republican.

Here is the House today:

Polarization: Past and Present

This is a fascinating map in that it almost perfectly matches the 2008 electoral college. One sees the Republican corridor of strength in the South and Mountain West. Most of the map is blue since Democrats have a 255-178 majority, the result of two previous Democratic landslides.

Let’s move back several decades:

Polarization: Past and Present

The date is 1960; President John Kennedy has just been elected. Democrats hold a 258-177 majority, almost identical to that today.

There are a lot more "one-party states" compared to the current map. Sectional division is far more pronounced; there is a line between North and South that simply does not exist in today’s House. In 1960 – especially in the still-standing Solid South – blue states generally did not elect Republicans, and vice versa.

Polarization grows even worse if one goes back further. Here is 2002, once again:

Polarization: Past and Present

Here is 1894:

Polarization: Past and Present

Republicans have just won 130(!) seats. They hold a 254 to 93 majority.

In this incredible map, there are only six states with congressional delegations less than 80-100% from one party. In it one can literally trace the battlefields of the Civil War.

This is real polarization, the results of a nation so divided it had literally torn itself in two. This is the type of polarization that results from scars so deep that they took more than a century to heal.

Perhaps today America is indeed growing more polarized, more divided into red states and blue states. But when one compares the present situation to past ones, there is literally no comparison. The United States has a long way to go before it gets as polarized as it did during the latter half of the 19th century.

by inoljt

The Solid South

9:01 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

By: Inoljt,

It is a popular today to say that the South has switched from voting Democratic to Republican. Many people are fond of looking at previous electoral maps. Hey, isn’t that funny – the states have completely switched parties. It’s like the Republicans have recreated the Solid South.

That statement is unequivocally false. Most people have no idea how unbelievably Democratic the Solid South was. For half a century, Democrats in the Deep South did about as well as the Communist Party did in Soviet Union elections.

Let’s take a look at a model Republican southern state: Alabama. John McCain won 60.32% of the vote here, his second best showing in the South. Below are the counties in which Mr. McCain won over 70% of the vote (all my statistics below are from – an amazing website).

Alabama Counties 70%+ Vote

That’s a lot of counties. The Republicans are doing quite well – about as well as the Democrats used to do in Alabama, many would say.

Here is another map, filled with blue counties. It is the 1940 presidential election. I invite you to guess – what do these blue counties represent? Counties in which Roosevelt won over 70% of the vote? 80%? 90%? Remember, Roosevelt was quite a popular guy. He must have done pretty well in Alabama, part of the Solid South.

Alabama Counties 95%+ Vote 1940

In fact, the blue counties are those in which Roosevelt won over 95% of the vote in 1940. In all, he won 85.22% of the good folk of Alabama.

Those are incredible numbers. If today that result occurred, we would all cry fraud.

Of course, fraud – of a sort – was occurring in Alabama at that time. As everybody knows, blacks were not allowed to vote at that time. Notice how all but one of the blue counties surround Alabama’s Black Belt. What is less well known, however, is that many poor whites (more likely to vote Republican) were also unable to vote. The poll tax didn’t hurt just African-Americans, after all.

Different southern states enacted different voting restrictions with an intent to continue Democratic dominance. Some were more strict; some were less so. Republicans in North Carolina, for example, generally held Democrats to below 60% of the vote; they even won the state in 1928. On the other hand, South Carolina probably disenfranchised the most voters.

Here is the result:

South Carolina 10%+ 1912-44

The blue indicates a county that gave the Republican candidate less than 10% of the vote – for nine straight elections, from 1912 to 1944. From 1900 to 1944, South Carolina’s average vote (per election) went 94.89% Democratic, 3.98% Republican.

How did South Carolina achieve this amazing result?

A revealing clue is provided by looking at the voting count numbers. For example, in the year 1912 a total of 50,405 people voted in South Carolina (48,357 of whom supported the Democrat). At that time the census had just reapportioned electoral votes; South Carolina had a total of nine.

By comparing South Carolina to states with similar populations, one can get an idea of how many potential voters were disenfranchised. Kansas, for example, had ten electoral votes; 365,560 people in the state voted that year. West Virginia had eight electoral votes; 268,828 people voted in that state (remember, this was before women’s suffrage). In South Carolina, therefore, several times more citizens “should” have voted than actually did.

In conclusion, to state that the Solid South always voted Democratic is a misnomer. Even to say that it voted extremely Democratic might still be inaccurate. It would be like saying I’m interested in politics. Technically its true, but the picture the words imply far and away understates the reality.