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How Southern Whites Went Republican


Lately Kevin has been writing a bit about the South’s transition from the Democratic camp to the Republican one. I took some time today to run the numbers through the General Social Survey, a massive research project that has been underway since 1972 and whose datasets are publicly available. All of the data I use in this post are compiled in this spreadsheet.

The GSS provides some information that isn’t available in the basic election numbers. For starters, it asks Americans about their overall party identification — especially when the parties’ ideologies are in flux, there can be a marked difference between the parties at the national and the local level, and someone who voted for (say) a Republican for president might really consider himself a Democrat. More important, the GSS allows us to see the interactions between racial attitudes and politics.

I restricted the data to white people living in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. (Unfortunately, the regional category that includes Georgia and the Carolinas also includes everything from Florida to Virginia to Delaware to D.C., so it’s not as purely southern as the others.) I lumped “strong” Republicans and Democrats together with “not strong” identifications, but I did not include Republican- or Democratic-leaning independents.

The basic party-identification numbers (graph here) are consistent with trends in elections: White southerners were solidly Democratic in the wake of the civil-rights movement but slowly became solidly Republican, with the crossover point around 1990. As Kevin writes, election results didn’t flip until a few years later; presumably this has to do with the Democratic non-white vote.

Over the years the GSS has also asked a variety of questions about racial attitudes. In my view the most direct measure of racism — and especially of politically tinged racism — is the question of whether the respondent would vote for a black presidential candidate if his party nominated one. The question was asked between 1972 and 1996, and then again in 2008 and 2010. Among southern whites, while the numbers jerk around quite a bit, the overall trend for the “no” answer is unsurprisingly downward. The 2008 and 2010 numbers aren’t particularly informative about general racial attitudes — the Democrats had a black candidate/president and the Republicans didn’t — but I’ve included them.

If racism had something to do with the overall white-southern transition from Democrat to Republican, you would expect the people answering “no” to exemplify this trend particularly strongly, abandoning the newly racially pristine Democrats for the newly bigoted Republicans while their non-racist neighbors at the very least shifted toward the Republicans more slowly. But you don’t: Until 2008 and 2010, southern whites who answered “no” were quite similar in their party identification to those who answered “yes.” There’s a graph of Republican party ID among “yes” and “no” respondents by year here, and a graph for Democrats here. (I’ve conveniently labeled the “no” answerers “Racists.”)

Of course, liberals often respond to basic facts like these by using other, supposedly more sophisticated measures — but as I’ve noted before, these measures often amount to baiting conservatives into giving “racist” answers to questions. The bottom line is that Republicans took over the South as racism declined there, and that they were equally successful among racists and non-racists.


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