In the 19th century, Southern Democrats comprised whites in the South who believed in Jacksonian democracy. In the 1850s they held that slavery was a good thing and promoted its expansion into the West. After Reconstruction ended in the late 1870s they controlled all the Southern states and disenfranchised the blacks (who were Republicans). The "Solid South" gave nearly all its electoral votes to Democrats in presidential elections. Republicans seldom were elected to office outside some mountain districts.
During the 1930s, as the New Deal began to move Democrats as a whole to the left in economic policy, Southern Democrats were mostly supportive, although by the late 1930s there was a growing conservative faction. Both factions supported Roosevelt's foreign policies. By 1948 the protection of segregation led Democrats in the Deep South to reject Truman and run a third party ticket of Dixiecrats in the 1948 election. After 1964, Southern Democrats lost major battles to the civil rights movement. Federal laws ended segregation and restrictions on black voters.
After World War II, during the civil rights movement, Democrats in the South initially still voted loyally with their party. After the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the old argument that all whites had to stick together to prevent civil rights legislation lost its force because the legislation had now been passed. More and more whites began to vote Republican, especially in the suburbs and growing cities. Newcomers from the North were mostly Republican; they were now joined by conservatives and wealthy Southern whites, while liberal whites and poor whites, especially in rural areas, remained with the Democratic Party.
Denouncing the forced busing policy that was used to enforce school desegregation,Richard Nixon courted conservative Southern whites with what is called the Southern Strategy, though his speechwriter Jeffrey Hart claimed that his campaign rhetoric was actually a "Border State Strategy" and accused the press of being "very lazy" when they called it a "Southern Strategy". In the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling, the power of the federal government to enforce forced busing was strengthened when the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts had the discretion to include busing as a desegregation tool to achieve racial balance. Many southern Democrats became Republicans at the national level, while remaining with their old party in state and local politics throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision, however, the ability to use forced busing as a political tactic was greatly diminished when the U.S. Supreme Court placed an important limitation on Swann and ruled that students could only be bused across district lines if evidence of de jure segregation across multiple school districts existed. In 1980, the Southern Strategy would officially see fruition when Ronald Reagan announced that he supported states rights and that welfare abuse justified the need for it. Lee Atwater, who served Reagan's chief strategist in the Southern states, claimed that by 1968, a vast majority of southern whites had learned to accept that racial slurs like "nigger" were very offensive and that mentioning "states rights" and reasons for its justification had now become the best way to both use the politically valuable race card and appeal to southern white voters.
The South became fertile ground for the GOP, which conversely was becoming more conservative as the Democrats were becoming more liberal. Democratic incumbents, however, still held sway over voters in many states, especially those of the Deep South. Although Republicans won most presidential elections in Southern states starting in 1964, Democrats controlled nearly every Southern state legislature until the mid-1990s and had a moderate (although not huge) amount of members in state legislatures until 2010. In fact, until 2002, Democrats still had much control over Southern politics. It wasn't until the 1990s that Democratic control began to implode, starting with the elections of 1994, in which Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress, through the rest of the decade. By the mid-1990s, however, the political value of the race card was evaporating and many Republicans began to court African Americans by playing on their vast dedication to Christian conservatism.
Republicans first dominated presidential elections in the South, then controlled Southern gubernatorial and U.S. Congress elections, then took control of elections to several state legislatures and came to be competitive in or even to control local offices in the South. Southern Democrats of today who vote for the Democratic ticket are mostly urban liberals. Rural residents tend to vote for the Republican ticket, although there are sizable numbers of Conservative Democrats.
A huge portion of Representatives, Senators, and voters who were referred to as Reagan Democrats in the 1980s were conservative Southern Democrats. An Interesting exception has been Arkansas, whose state legislature has continued to be majority Democrat (having, however, given its electoral votes to the GOP in the past three Presidential elections, except in 1992 and 1996 when "favorite son" Bill Clinton was the candidate and won each time) until 2012, when Arkansas voters selected a 21-14 Republican majority in the Arkansas Senate.
Another exception is North Carolina. Despite the fact that the state has voted for Republicans in every presidential election from 1980 until 2004, the governorship (until 2012), legislature (until 2010), as well as most statewide offices, it remains in Democratic control. The North Carolina congressional delegation was heavily Democratic until 2012 when the Republicans had occasion, after the 2010 United States census, to adopt a redistricting plan of their choosing.
The Democrats have their beginnings in the South, going back to the founding of the Democratic-Republican Party in 1793 by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It held to small government principles and distrusted the national government. Foreign policy was a major issue. After being the dominant party in U.S. politics from 1800 to 1829, the Democratic-Republicans split into two factions by 1828: the federalist National Republicans, and the Democrats. The Democrats and Whigs were evenly balanced in the 1830s and 1840s. However, by the 1850s, the Whigs disintegrated. Other opposition parties emerged but the Democrats were dominant. Northern Democrats were in serious opposition to Southern Democrats on the issue of slavery; Northern Democrats led by Stephen Douglas believed in Popular Sovereignty—letting the people of the territories vote on slavery. The Southern Democrats, reflecting the views of the late John C. Calhoun, insisted slavery was national.
The Democrats controlled the national government 1852-60. Presidents Pierce and Buchanan were friendly to Southern interests. In the North the newly formed anti-slavery Republican Party came to power, and dominated the electoral college. In the 1860 presidential election, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, but the divide among Democrats led to the nomination of two candidates: John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky represented Southern Democrats, and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois represented Northern Democrats. But the Republicans had a majority of the electoral vote regardless of how the opposition split or joined together and Abraham Lincoln was elected.
American Civil War and post-Reconstruction
After the election of Abraham Lincoln, Southern Democrats led the charge to secede from the Union and form the Confederate States of America. The Congress was dominated by Republicans, save for Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, the only senator from a state in rebellion to reject secession. The Border States of Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri were torn by political turmoil. Kentucky and Missouri were both governed by pro-secessionist Southern Democratic Governors who vehemently rejected Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops. Kentucky and Missouri both held secession conventions and seceded while under Federal occupation. Southern Democrats in Maryland faced a Unionist Governor Thomas Holliday Hicks and the Union Army. Armed with the suspension of habeas corpus and Union troops, Governor Hicks was able to stop Maryland's secession movement. Maryland was the only state south of the Mason-Dixon Line whose governor affirmed Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops.
After secession, the Democratic vote in the North split between the War Democrats and the Peace Democrats and Copperheads. The War Democrats voted for Lincoln in 1864, and he had one—Andrew Johnson—on his ticket. In the South during Reconstruction the white Republican element, called "Scalawags" became smaller and smaller as more and more joined the Democrats. In the North most War Democrats returned to the Democracy, and when the "Panic of 1873" hit, the GOP was blamed and the Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives in 1874. The Democrats emphasized that since Jefferson and Jackson they had been the party of states rights, which added to their appeal in the white South.
At the beginning of the 20th century the Democrats, led by the dominant Southern wing, had a strong representation in Congress. They won both houses in 1912 and elected Woodrow Wilson, A New Jersey academic with deep Southern roots and a strong base among the Southern middle class. The GOP regained Congress in 1918.
From 1921 until 1930, the Democrats, despite universal dominance in most of the South, were relegated to second place status in national politics, controlling no branch of the federal government. In 1928 several Southern states dallied with voting Republican in supporting Herbert Hoover over Al Smith, but the behavior was short lived as the Stock Market Crash of 1929 returned Republicans to disfavor throughout the South. Nationally, Republicans lost Congress in 1930 and the White House in 1932 by huge margins. By this time, too, the Democratic Party leadership began to change its tone somewhat on racial politics. With the Great Depression gripping the nation, and with the lives of most Americans disrupted, the assisting of African-Americans in American society was seen as necessary by the new government.
The New Deal and After
The New Deal program of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) generally united the party factions for over three decades, since Southerners, like Northern urban populations, were hit particularly hard and generally benefited from the massive governmental relief program. FDR was adept at holding white Southerners in the coalition while simultaneously beginning the erosion of Black voters away from their then-characteristic Republican preferences. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s catalyzed the end of this Democratic Party coalition of interests by magnetizing Black voters to the Democratic label and simultaneously ending White control of the Democratic Party apparatus. A series of court decisions, rendering primary elections as public instead of private events administered by the parties, essentially freed the Southern region to change more toward the two-party behavior of most of the rest of the nation.
In the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956 Republican nominee Dwight David Eisenhower, a popular World War IIgeneral, won several Southern states, thus breaking some white Southerners away from their Democratic Party pattern. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a significant event in converting the Deep South to the Republican Party; in that year most Senatorial Republicans supported the Act (most of the opposition came from Southern Democrats), but the Republican Party nominated for the Presidency Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who had opposed it. From the end of the Civil War to 1960 Democrats had solid control over the southern states in presidential elections, hence the term "Solid South" to describe the states' Democratic preference. After the passage of this Act, however, their willingness to support Republicans on a presidential level increased demonstrably. Goldwater won many of the "Solid South" states over Democratic candidate Lyndon Johnson, himself a Texan, and with many this Republican support continued and seeped down the ballot to congressional, state, and ultimately local levels. A further significant item of legislation was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which targeted for preclearance by the U.S. Department of Justice any election-law change in areas where African-American voting participation was lower than the norm (most but not all of these areas were in the South); the effect of the Voting Rights Act on southern elections was profound, including the by-product that some White Southerners perceived it as meddling while Black voters universally appreciated it. The trend toward acceptance of Republican identification among Southern White voters was bolstered in the next two elections by the "Southern Strategy" of Richard Nixon.
In 1976, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter won every Southern state except Oklahoma and Virginia in his successful campaign to win the Presidency as a Democrat, but his support among White voters in the South evaporated amid their disappointment that he was not the yearned-for reincarnation of Democratic conservatism. In 1980 Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan won overwhelmingly in most of the South.
In 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was elected President. Unlike Carter, however, Clinton was only able to win the southern states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. While running for President, Clinton promised to "end welfare as we have come to know it" while in office. In 1996, Clinton would fulfill his campaign promise and the longtime GOP goal of major welfare reform came into fruition. After two welfare reform bills sponsored the GOP-controlled Congress were successfully vetoed by the President, a compromise was eventually reached and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act was signed into law on August 22, 1996.
During Clinton's Presidency, the southern strategy shifted towards the so-called cultural war, which saw major political battles between the Religious Right and secularists. Southern Democrats still did and do see much support on the local level, however, and many of them are not nearly so liberal as the Democratic party as a whole. Southern general elections in which the Democrat is to the right of the Republican are still not entirely unheard of.
Chapman notes a split vote among many conservative Southern Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s who supported local and statewide conservative Democrats while simultaneously voting for Republican presidential candidates.
Notable modern and former Southern Democrats
Richard Shelby, former Representative, current U.S. Senator from Alabama (Democrat until 1994, now Republican)
J. Strom Thurmond, former U.S. Senator from South Carolina and former Governor of South Carolina (Democrat until 1964, then Republican until death), States' Right candidate (Dixiecrat) for President in 1948
Barone, Michael, and others. The Almanac of American Politics 1976: The Senators, the Representatives and the Governors: Their Records and Election Results, Their States and Districts (1975-2013); new edition every 2 years; detailed political profile of every governor and member of Congress, as well as state and district politics
Bullock III, Charles S. and Mark J. Rozell, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Southern Politics (2012)
Key, V. O. Southern Politics in State and Nation (1951), famous classic
Rae, Nicol C. Southern Democrats (Oxford University Press, 1994)
Richter, William L. Historical Dictionary of the Old South (2005)
Shafer, Byron E. The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Postwar South (2006) excerpt and text search
Twyman, Robert W. and David C. Roller, eds. Encyclopedia of Southern History LSU Press (1979).
Woodard, J. David. The New Southern Politics (2006)