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date: 28 June 2022

The Evolving Politics of the South

Abstract and Keywords

The politics of every region in the United States has unique features, colorful characters, and interesting elections. It is the South, and only the South, however, that has become a topic of study, research, and teaching at many colleges and universities. Southern politics as a field of study can trace its origins to V. O. Key Jr. who published the seminal Southern Politics in State and Nation in 1949. Since then others have built on the first part of his work, which described the politics in each of the eleven states that formed the Confederate States of America. Neither Democrats nor Republicans had much organizational structure in the late 1940s, and Key devoted little attention to the parties, having noted the complete dominance of Democrats in each of the state articles. Although the region's politics had varied little over the three-quarters of a century prior to publication of Southern Politics, Key saw cracks that could bring down the carefully constructed edifice. He anticipated that how the region dealt with issues of party and race would determine the South's future.

Keywords: Southern politics, V. O. Key Jr., Confederate States of America, organizational structure, race, party organization

The politics of every region in the United States has unique features, colorful characters, and interesting elections. It is the South, and only the South, however, that has become a topic of study, research, and teaching at many colleges and universities.

Southern politics as a field of study can trace its origins to V. O. Key Jr. who published the seminal Southern Politics in State and Nation in 1949. Since then others have built on the first part of his work, which described the politics in each of the eleven states that formed the Confederate States of America (Havard 1972; Bass and De Vries 1976; Lamis 1988, 1999; Bullock and Rozell 1998, 2003, 2007, 2010).

Neither Democrats nor Republicans had much organizational structure in the late 1940s, and Key devoted little attention to the parties, having noted the complete dominance of Democrats in each of the state chapters. Subsequent generations of scholars have detailed the emergence of the GOP and offered explanations for the changes they observed at various stages along the way to partisan competitiveness (Black and Black 1987, 1992, 2002; Aistrup 1996; Lublin 2004; Rhodes 2000). Key devotes part 5 of his book to the tactics used to produce a small electorate by disfranchising African Americans. The expansion of the suffrage in the wake of civil rights statutes and court decisions has attracted widespread attention (Price 1957; Matthews and Prothro 1966; Keech 1968; Foster 1985; Parker 1990; Davidson and Grofman 1994; Grofman 1998; Canon 1999; McDonald 2003; Bullock and Gaddie 2009).

The South's distinctiveness intrigued Key and those who have followed the path he blazed. Many parts of the country lacked vigorous two-party competition in the (p. 4) middle of the twentieth century, but in no other region did the majority party have the tenure or the extent of control of the Democratic Party in the South. The South's other distinctive feature, and one that persists, is its high concentration of African Americans. Key sets up his study with this statement: “In its grand outlines the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro…. In the last analysis the major peculiarities of southern politics go back to the Negro. Whatever the phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro” (1949: 5). Among the many facets of southern politics that Key saw as products of the high concentration of African Americans was the region's one-party politics. White southerners’ commitment to white supremacy explained their dogged loyalty to the Democratic Party so long as the national Democratic Party maintained a hands-off approach to southern race relations. Competitive elections would ultimately lead to appeals by one or both parties for black votes, and in the majority-black counties of the South the result would potentially be African American political control.

Although the region's politics had varied little over the three-quarters of a century prior to publication of Southern Politics, Key saw cracks that could bring down the carefully constructed edifice. He anticipated that how the region dealt with issues of party and race would determine the South's future. He expected that the GOP would find adherents once it became active in the South, and fulfillment of his prediction began almost immediately after publication of his masterpiece. In 1952, the first presidential election after release of Southern Politics, Dwight Eisenhower broke with tradition and campaigned in the South. For his efforts he won the electors in four states. To put the Eisenhower breakthrough in perspective, in the previous eighteen presidential elections Republican presidential candidates had carried a total of six states.

Key concludes Southern Politics with the warning that the most critical challenge in the region was race relations. The initial steps toward dismantling Jim Crow segregation were taken less than a decade after Key completed his research. Within the space of three years, three events that many in the South had thought unimaginable occurred. First, the U.S. Supreme Court called for the end of Jim Crow in public facilities when it held that racially segregated schools violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and could not be modified to meet that provision of the Fourteenth Amendment. Second, the capital city of Alabama, a state that Key described as ruled by the Big Mules—the steel industry barons and wealthy farmers—witnessed a grassroots movement challenging segregation on the city's buses, led by the charismatic Martin Luther King Jr. Third, in 1957 Congress passed the first civil rights legislation in eighty years. None of these changes singularly or in combination immediately secured racial equality, but by taking the first tentative steps toward dismantling the traditions of white supremacy, racial segregation in public accommodations and education, and authorizing federal authorities to protect African Americans’ access to the ballot, the march toward securing the guarantees articulated in the post–Civil War Amendments to the Constitution had begun.

(p. 5) One could make the case that when Key wrote, the South was the region most resistant to change. Its partisan structure had undergone little change in generations; its race relations, although experiencing some challenges from black veterans returning from World War II, remained much as they had been since the turn of the century; and its economy remained heavily dependent on agriculture, as it had since the earliest settlement. Across the past six decades the South has undergone a more dramatic transformation than the rest of the nation. While all regions have experienced shifts in partisan strength, the South has witnessed the most extensive change (Bullock, Hoffman, and Gaddie 2006). Although not all racial barriers have been obliterated, race relations and opportunities for minorities have improved so that the South is no longer an outlier. The position of black political leaders and their agendas in the South have never been stronger. This success stems from the sacrifices made by those active in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, who, as Seth McKee documents in this volume, successfully defeated Jim Crow in the streets of Birmingham, Selma, and many other communities, and who through their peaceful protests shamed Congress into passing a series of civil rights bills that transformed race relations in America.

The South, where for generations the white population looked backward to celebrate the Lost Cause of the Confederacy (Naipaul 1989), has finally moved on and now competes for the fruits of economic development. With the availability of air conditioning, industry and corporate leadership began leaving the Rust Belt for the Sun Belt. In 1955 only eighteen of the largest U.S. corporations had headquarters in the South; by 2002 the number had grown almost sevenfold. North Carolina's Research Triangle and Austin, Texas, have attracted the kinds of high-tech industry that every chamber of commerce covets. Automobile plants, especially those of foreign manufacturers, have accepted the tax abatements and job training offered by southern states and communities and transformed stretches of rural landscape in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Most of the nation's fastest growing metropolitan areas are in the South, as are many of the fastest growing counties. The South, which during the middle of the twentieth century just held its own in relation to the rest of the nation when it came to population growth, added twenty-three congressional seats from the 1982–2002 redistrictings and had a net gain of seven more seats following the 2010 census.

Writing at the midpoint of the twentieth century, Key (1949) made the oft-repeated observation that the largely disfranchised African American stood at the epicenter of southern politics. The passage of three generations, multiple pieces of civil rights legislation, hundreds of court cases, and the election of thousands of blacks to public office have yet to falsify completely Key's assertion. While some argue that economic issues rather than civil rights occupy center stage (Abramowitz 1994; Shafer and Johnston 2006), few would deny that blacks play key roles, even if some might argue that they no longer have the leading role in the politics of the South.

As federal efforts have transformed African Americans from objects to actors, blacks remain on the outside looking in when many southern political decisions are made. Despite Barack Obama's success in winning three southern states, those (p. 6) constitute the only three instances in the first decade of the twenty-first century when African Americans were on the winning side of a presidential election in a southern state. The Democratic ticket, with two southerners, resulted in African Americans being in the majority in four states in both of the presidential elections of the 1990s, a dramatic increase from the single instance (Georgia in 1980) when blacks’ preferred candidates carried a southern state in the 1980s. In states dominated by Republicans, as McKee documents, black votes do not usually determine the outcome of contests for high office. Nor do black preferences carry much weight in legislative chambers having Republican majorities, a situation that accounts for most of the South's legislative bodies in 2011.

In contrast to the limited success African Americans have had in electing their preferences to high office, thousands of blacks hold legislative offices and local posts, and, at a minimum, from these positions they can place concerns of their constituents on the agenda of the body on which they serve. When Key wrote, the South's African Americans did not even have the opportunity to place items on the agenda. Today, when southern state legislatures have a Democratic majority, African Americans chair committees and provide essential support that allows them to bargain with their white colleagues. African Americans constitute a majority of the officeholders in scores of local governing units, where they can promote the concerns of their constituents, although in many of these entities limited financial resources circumscribe what they can hope to achieve.

What Is the South?

Various suggestions have been made concerning which states constitute the South. The most common definition considers the South to be the eleven states that seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy. Another widely used definition is that of the Census Bureau, which, in addition to the eleven states of the Confederacy, includes Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The Southern Political Report, a long-running, semiweekly newsletter reporting on the politics of the region, includes Kentucky and Oklahoma along with the other eleven states.

Price (1957) used a six-part Guttman scale for identifying the relative southernness of states. His first criterion identified Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina as the most southern because they supported Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat presidential bid in 1948. A second criterion was support for the Democratic Party in 1928, which added Georgia and Arkansas. The third criterion, having an African American population in excess of 20 percent in 1950, added Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. The fourth criterion was secession, which added Tennessee and Texas. The fifth criterion identified the slave states in 1860, adding the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri as well as West (p. 7) Virginia, which broke away from Virginia in 1863. The sixth criterion, requiring statewide school segregation as of May 1954, added Oklahoma.

Table 1.1 Percentages of Respondents Who Believe Their State to Be Southern, 1999



South Carolina










North Carolina












West Virginia








District of Columbia


Source: Reed (1999).

Survey work, reported in Table 1.1, indicates the share of respondents who in 1999 believed they lived in a southern state. At the upper limit, 98 percent in Alabama and South Carolina asserted that their state was southern (Reed 1999). In four other states that seceded 97 percent of respondents believed they lived in a southern state. More than 90 percent in both North Carolina and Arkansas reported living in a southern state. In the two remaining states of the Confederacy, 84 percent of Texans and 82 percent of Virginians acknowledged that their state was southern. Kentuckians came close to matching the percentages for Texas and Virginia, and Oklahoma was the only other state in which a majority of the respondents believed they lived in a southern state. In the remaining border states, no more than 45 percent in West Virginia and as few as 14 percent in Delaware believed their state to be southern. The figures in Table 1.1 suggest that the Census Bureau has an overly broad definition of the South.

What is often thought of as the Confederate battle flag, which features the Cross of St. Andrews, displays thirteen stars. It includes a star for Kentucky, a state in which more than twice as many young men fought for the Confederacy as the Union. The thirteenth star represented Missouri.

A more contemporary dichotomy of the nation distinguishes between the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt. In addition to the states of the Confederacy, the Sun Belt (p. 8) includes Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, southern California, and the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. These share both a southern location and much of the growth that has taken place in the nation's population over the past couple of generations. Many but not all of these areas have also had dynamic economies during much of the recent period.

The South is frequently subdivided into the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina) and the Rim, Peripheral, or Outer South (Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia). The chapter by Merle and Earl Black demonstrates that the Deep South continues to have greater concentrations of salient regional features, that is, a large black population coupled with a disproportionately conservative white electorate. The juxtaposition of these two features results in the Deep South frequently evincing regional characteristics in more extreme form than the other six states. As the Black brothers demonstrate, white voters in the Deep South increasingly vote Republican in presidential elections; only 17 percent of whites voted for Obama, setting a record for rejection of the Democratic Party. Whites in the Peripheral South gave Obama more support, which allowed him to carry three of those states. As white support for Republican nominees has grown, the racial chasm has widened, since black voters in the Deep South favor Democrats by larger margins than black voters elsewhere. In the Deep South party and racial divisions run parallel.

The Blacks’ review of partisan competition for Senate seats shows how Democrats managed to win these seats even after they ceased to be competitive in presidential elections. Although success came more slowly in senatorial and congressional than presidential contests, in 2010 Republicans occupied all but one Deep South Senate seat compared with half the Peripheral South Senate seats. The affirmative action redistricting of the early 1990s facilitated GOP House gains, but the successes in Senate contests came exclusively from attracting voters who had previously preferred Democratic candidates.

While the Deep South is now more Republican than the rest of the region, the Rim South led the way in sending Republicans to the House, with early GOP inroads coming in Dallas; St. Petersburg, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and northern Virginia. The first Republican senator from the South in modern times, John Tower, won a special election in Texas to replace Lyndon Johnson. In 1966 Arkansas and Florida became the first southern states to elect a Republican governor since 1920.

Save for Louisiana in 1956, Deep South states did not vote for a Republican for president until 1964, when Barry Goldwater swept the subregion. Goldwater's coattails also brought the first Republicans to the House in the twentieth century, from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, and induced two South Carolinians, Senator Strom Thurmond and Representative Albert Watson, to change their affiliations to the GOP.

In keeping with Key's (1949) black threat thesis, the Deep South resisted efforts to promote racial equality more fiercely than the Rim South. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, school segregation began sooner in the Rim than in the Deep (p. 9) South. Also smaller percentages of African American adults had registered to vote in the Deep South states prior to the adoption of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (Rodgers and Bullock 1972: 27).

Merle and Earl Black demonstrate that the Deep South states are more southern than their Peripheral neighbors. Key went one step further in identifying relative southernness. He observed, “The hard core of the political South—and the backbone of southern political unity—is made up of those counties and sections of the southern states in which Negroes constitute a substantial proportion of the population” (1949: 5). He goes on to assert, “Although the whites of the black belts are few in number, their unity and their political skill have enabled them to run a shoestring into decisive power at critical junctures in southern political history” (6).

In their chapter Joe Sumners and Amelia Stehouwer explore the various definitions of the Black Belt before showing how its importance in the political and economic life of the South has declined. A century ago the Black Belt exercised disproportionate influence over state policy and used that influence to promote low taxes and stingy public services and maintain a cheap labor force of sharecroppers. Black Belt counties, once some of the South's most wealthy, have missed out on the South's post–World War II growth. The authors catalogue the disadvantages confronting the Black Belt, such as inadequate human and social capital, that make it uncompetitive when it comes to attracting good-paying jobs.

In this volume we direct our attention to the eleven states that seceded. A number of the authors draw distinctions between the Deep and Rim South.

Southern Distinctiveness

The South has attracted more academic study than any other region of the country. In addition to courses and books on southern politics, there is also a substantial literature and course work dealing with southern history. The literature of the South is a major field of study. What is it about the South that has brought it more attention than other regions?

Part of the legacy involves the practice of slavery. While most of the original states accepted slavery at some point in their history, as Art Carden explains, it played a larger role in the economy of the South and persisted longer. Related to the practice of slavery was, of course, the Civil War. Losing the Civil War and much of the region's wealth, experiencing the occupation of a hostile force, living under military government, and losing a generation of young men shaped the region's culture for generations. Although most white southerners did not have a Scarlett O’Hara experience, subsequent generations embraced the South of plantations and gracious living as they paid homage to the Lost Cause. V. S. Naipaul (1989) likens many white southerners’ identification with the past to the retrospective approach taken by Shia Muslims. Southerners clung to and embellished their myths of a grandeur (p. 10) now passed and of heroic sacrifices made by Confederate veterans who told younger generations of their valor at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Bull Run, and other battles.

C. Vann Woodward (1968), a leading historian of the South, notes that the South's defeat on the battlefield set it apart from the rest of the nation until the U.S. war in Vietnam. As Woodward explains, the South's “history does not include an unbroken experience of invincibility, success, opulence and innocence. The South does not share the national myths based on these experiences” (160). Instead the South had a history more like that of other nations that lost wars, were occupied by conquering armies, had seen their wealth carried away, and hated the conqueror for these depredations. Moreover, because it fought to maintain slavery, “the South's preoccupation was with guilt, not innocence, with the reality of evil, not the dream of perfection. Its experience in this respect as in several others, was on the whole a thoroughly un-American one” (28). Carden's chapter further elaborates the deep and long-term economic consequences in the South from the war's decimation of the region's slaveholding economy. It was really not until the mid-twentieth century that the South “rejoined the nation economically.”

David Breaux and Stephen Shaffer review an extensive political science and sociological literature that has sought to determine whether southerners have distinctive attitudes compared with Americans in other regions. They review studies tapping attitudes over a span of eight decades. The earliest work found that southerners had more liberal attitudes than nonsoutherners on issues not related to race or unions.1 The drift rightward begins after World War II, yet more contemporary studies, which include African Americans’ attitudes, frequently report only minor regional differences on a number of issues. Studies that compare white attitudes continue to find southerners more conservative on topics related to race, sex, and religion, with white males especially conservative. The literature suggests that regional differences in self-identified ideology are small and have gotten smaller over the years. While the South is more conservative than the nation on some issues, the differences are narrowing. On social welfare issues, the South is actually less conservative than the rest of the country.

Until recently women rarely played visible roles in southern politics, even though in recent decades women have constituted the bulk of the electorate. Despite their presence at the ballot box, their representation in the ranks of officeholders has come more slowly in the South than in the rest of the nation, as Sarah Poggione demonstrates. However, focusing exclusively on regional differences obscures variations within the South. The region's two most populous states have shown greater receptivity to electing women than other parts of the South. Deep South states often have the poorest records of electing women.

The poverty that followed the Civil War was not soon overcome (see, for example, Raper [1936] 2005). Much of the region remained poorer than the nation as a whole until well into the twentieth century, and some rural communities have never recovered. The industrialization that enriched much of the North in the decades following the Civil War bypassed the South. Instead of attracting industry and (p. 11) growth, the South remained disproportionately rural, a provider of raw materials sent north or abroad for finishing.

Some of the wealth generated in northern cities was invested in education. Public schools became the norm in northern cities, while in the southern countryside they frequently met for only a few months a year and offered little beyond basic literacy and computational skills. Across the North and Midwest education thrived, and numerous private colleges, frequently supported by religious denominations, were established. Fewer of the South's young adults were ready for college and there were fewer colleges to educate them. As educational opportunities broadened in the North, they remained limited in the South.

With little industrial development and widespread poverty, the South lacked the opportunities that attracted the waves of European immigrants to the rest of the country. Instead the population of the South remained isolated and parochial. Except for Louisiana and the South's few urban centers, the population remained almost exclusively Protestant and heavily evangelical.

Arnold Fleischmann traces the growth of the South's urban population, first in cities and more recently in sprawling suburbs that extend far out from Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Washington, DC. Southern cities have attracted both rural residents of the region as well as people from across America who relocate to the South for the job market. The region's pro-business policies of low taxes and subsidies lure major industries, such as the automobile plants that have sprung up along southern interstate highways. The ultimate success in rooting out the blatantly discriminatory practices that denied opportunities to African Americans and, in Texas, Latinos, also enhanced the attractiveness of the South for northern and international firms looking to locate factories, distribution centers, and regional or national headquarters.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, two events transformed the southern electorate. First, the Fifteenth Amendment led to the infusion of large numbers of recently freed black males. Second, accompanying that increase was the disfranchisement of some white soldiers who had taken up arms against the Union. During the early years of Reconstruction, Republicans fared well in the South. In the Forty-second Congress, the first elected after all southern states had rejoined the Union, Republicans held twenty-six of the region's sixty seats; Democrats filled twenty seats and third-party candidates took the remainder. In time Democrats “redeemed” their states, a process finalized by the withdrawal of the last federal forces following the compromise of 1877, which gave the presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. In the Forty-seventh Congress, Republican ranks had dwindled to five southern seats, while Democrats held sixty-four. The Mississippi and South Carolina delegations that had been all Republican in 1871 had become all Democratic a decade later. The last threats to Democratic hegemony came in the 1890s, when Republicans, often joining with Populists, enjoyed a degree of success, especially in North Carolina.

The potential of two-party competition in which African American votes might hold the balance of power provided the excuse for white elites, called the Bourbon (p. 12) Democrats, to restrict the franchise. Between 1890 and 1910 southern states adopted measures that made it difficult to register to vote. Mississippi, a majority-black state, pioneered reforms designed to deny African Americans the ballot. The Mississippi Constitution of 1890 imposed a poll tax, a literacy test, and a comprehension test as prerequisites for voting, increased the number of crimes that would cost one the franchise, and lengthened the residency requirement. Some northerners recognized the potential that the Mississippi Constitution had for contravening the Fifteenth Amendment, but Congress failed to pass the Lodge Force Act that might have returned federal troops to parts of the South to protect African Americans’ right to vote. Ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court approved the Mississippi Constitution and turned a blind eye to actions in Alabama designed to prevent black voting.2 With federal authority now sidelined, every southern state levied a poll tax, and the Deep South states plus North Carolina and Virginia adopted literacy tests (Key 1949; Kirwan 1951; Kousser 1974).

From the late 1870s until the 1950s, with few exceptions, Democrats won all the major offices in the South. For a generation prior to 1952 the only Republican members of Congress from the eleven states came from two districts in eastern Tennessee. Although the poll tax reduced the size of the electorate by eliminating both poor blacks and poor whites, after the 1890s economic cleavages failed to divide the southern white electorate. Save for a few mountain regions, candidates and voters participated in the Democratic primary.

Once the primary became the method of choosing Democratic nominees, all of the Deep South and most of the Rim South states passed legislation limiting participation in the Democratic primary to white voters (Key 1949). These barriers to participation in the critical selection process in the one-party region remained in place until the mid-1940s, when they were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and a series of lower court rulings directed at last-ditch attempts in some states to maintain the white primary (Tuck 2001).3

The Twenty-fourth Amendment, adopted in 1964, eliminated the poll tax for federal elections, and a Supreme Court decision barred its application in state elections. The literacy test, comprehension test, and good character test were all struck down in states subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and nationwide five years later.

One-party politics, especially when combined with term limits for governors, encouraged multifactionalism in most southern states (Key 1949). Multiple candidates would enter the contest for governor, each relying heavily on the support of “friends and neighbors” voters who lived in the same part of the state as the candidate. The result might be a plurality leader having a relatively small percentage of the vote. With the winner of the Democratic nomination always advancing to win the general election, often with no opposition, most southern states undertook efforts to ensure that their officeholders had a broader base of support. Beginning with Mississippi in 1902, states of the South adopted a majority-vote requirement so that if no candidate obtained a majority of the vote in the primary, a runoff would take place between the top two contenders. By 1940 every southern state except (p. 13) Virginia had adopted a majority-vote requirement, although Tennessee never implemented it (Bullock and Johnson 1992). Supporters of the second primary hoped that extremist candidates who might be able to poll a plurality would come up short in the runoff. Even in the absence of extremist candidates, the requirement of majority support might force both candidates who advanced to the runoff to modify and broaden their appeal.

In three states the multifactionalism that characterized much of the South was replaced by a structured duality. In Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia bifactionalism centered on a charismatic leader emerged around 1930. The best known of these was the Long Machine created by Huey Long, who advanced to the governorship in 1928 after years of service on the Railroad Commission. Even after his assassination in 1935 while serving as a U.S. senator, his followers, including his brother Earl, maintained the machine for several more decades. The Byrd faction in Virginia also sprang from a governorship, that of Harry Byrd (1925–29), who advanced to the Senate. It may have had the widest scope, with a broad-based organization extending to the county level (Key 1949). The Talmadge machine in Georgia was also the outgrowth of a governor, Eugene Talmadge (1933–36, 1941–42). Unlike Long and Byrd, Talmadge failed in his attempts to move on to the Senate. His machine, however, did succeed in electing his son as governor (1947, 1948–54) and senator (1957–81). In these bifactional states, at least for high-visibility offices, either the faction leader or a candidate closely identified with the faction would face a candidate associated with those who opposed the faction; thus Long candidates faced anti-Long candidates. Support for or opposition to the machine also extended down to the county level, where some counties would consistently vote for the machine and its candidates while others would oppose with equal consistency (Bernd 1960).

As the electorate expanded with the elimination of the poll tax and as it became better educated and more urban, the machines were threatened. Once Republicans became a factor in the political cosmos, the machines were doomed, though in reality they had already largely collapsed.

Change Comes to the South

The politics in the South today are largely unrecognizable when compared to Key's descriptions. Statewide offices in many southern states are either competitive or, given demographic trends (see the chapter by Susan MacManus in this volume), likely to become competitive. Two major forces have brought about this transformation in southern Politics: the development of a competitive Republican Party and black mobilization.

In his chapter Alexander Lamis, the foremost student of Key's Southern Politics in State and Nation, describes the process by which Roscoe Martin convinced Key to undertake the study and the design of the research. Using extensive excerpts from (p. 14) Alexander Heard's notes, Lamis gives a taste of the more than five hundred interviews the team conducted. By drawing on passages from Key's classic, Lamis illustrates Key's style and analysis. In summarizing major aspects of Key's work, Lamis reproduces the famous quote emphasizing the centrality of African Americans in southern politics. White southerners’ commitment to denying political influence to blacks provided the basis for one-party politics, where competition played out in a bifactional or multifactional environment.

Now, more than sixty years after its publication, Southern Politics has achieved the status of a classic with which many have a degree of familiarity, although few have read it recently. In very limited space Lamis deftly provides an overview of Key's massive work to jog the memories of those who have read the classic and give a sense of its major contributions to those who have not worked their way through the tome.

Much of the emphasis in southern politics beginning with Key has involved realignment. Key and his associate, Alexander Heard (1952), speculated on the potential for a shift from Democratic dominance to viable two-party competition. Coincident with Heard's volume, Dwight Eisenhower became the first Republican presidential candidate in a generation to win Electoral College votes in the South. Less than a generation later every southern state had voted for a Republican for president and the GOP had begun winning senatorial and gubernatorial elections, along with their greatest success in congressional delegations and state legislatures since Reconstruction.

Ronald Keith Gaddie revisits the two types of realignment identified by Key and demonstrates how each type occurred during the second half of the twentieth century in the South. Many African Americans, long denied access to politics by racist Democrats, continued to favor the party of Lincoln through the 1950s. A shift toward the national Democratic Party occurred with John Kennedy's expression of concern for Martin Luther King Jr., when the latter went to prison in Georgia following revocation of his probation. The contest between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, immediately after the former shepherded the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress over the opposition of the latter, stimulated a critical realignment of African Americans to the Democratic Party, where they have remained in overwhelming numbers.

The change in white loyalties conforms to the gradual shift of a secular realignment as support for Democratic candidates eroded and the GOP expanded, much like the gradual accretions that created the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana. As Gaddie explains, the Rim South and Deep South began their exodus from the Democratic Party at different times and moved at different speeds.

While the GOP had sown up the bulk of the South's presidential electors by 1980, change came slower to the rest of the ticket (Black and Black 2002). Even Reagan's sweep in 1984, which confirmed the allegiance of white conservatives, netted few additional legislative seats. The 1994 midterm election saw the realignment of the white vote in congressional contests and in legislative contests in a few states. In subsequent elections the GOP continued to make gains, with little to suggest a (p. 15) potential resurgence of the Democratic Party until Barack Obama won three states in 2008, including Virginia, which had not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964.

Using periodical surveys, scholars have attempted to track the attitudes and characteristics of new generations of southern political activities as they created party organizations (Hadley and Bowman 1995; Maggiotto and Wekkin 2000; Clark and Prysby 2004). These surveys and materials in party archives allow John Clark to present snapshots at several points in time; from these pictures we get a sense of the changes as the GOP has become a force in southern politics and Democrats, who controlled southern politics for decades without bothering to develop a structure, have also gotten organized.

While both parties have experienced growth in their organizational capacity, the trend in party electoral strength for the second half of the twentieth century tended to be unidirectional. Beginning in the 1950s or 1960s—the onset varies depending on the subregion and state and within states the office—Republicans have won a growing share of the region's elected positions (Bullock, Hoffman, and Gaddie 2006). M. V. Hood, Quentin Kidd, and Irwin Morris provide an especially long view of partisan advantage in the South as they begin their review with Reconstruction, which ended the brief period when Republicans controlled southern politics. The bulk of their chapter, however, focuses on the erosion of Democratic Party allegiance that first became visible in Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid as a Dixiecrat and then, four years later, Eisenhower's detaching four states from the Democratic grasp. The gradual erosion of Democratic loyalties delivered the region's electoral votes to the GOP by the early 1970s, but it took another decade before southern conservatives gave up on the party of their ancestors. In time, as Hood and his colleagues detail, social conservatives, many of whom had ties to evangelical religions, racial conservatives, and economic conservatives attracted by “small government” rhetoric became sufficiently numerous to elect Republican majorities in the South's delegations to both the U.S. House and Senate (also see Black and Black 2002).

The loosening of the Democratic hold on the South would seem to have created an opportunity for minor or third-party candidates to succeed in the region. Certainly Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign and later George Wallace's run in 1968 drew heavy concentrations of votes from the southern states and relatively little support elsewhere in the country. Yet as Ted G. Jelen shows, other than these two cases, in the modern era independent presidential candidates have fared more poorly in the South than throughout the rest of the country. Jelen identifies nine races in which a consequential minor party presidential candidate was on the ballot in many states. In seven of those cases the candidates fared better outside than inside the South. One-party dominance by the Democrats for generations helps explain this finding, although even during the era of the GOP surge in the South the pattern held consistently.

Laurence Moreland and Robert Steed's chapter confirms the historical tendency of presidential election “one partyism” in the South. From 1880 to 2008 there were (p. 16) thirty-three presidential contests, and in all but six in a two-decade period (1948–68) the South voted firmly for one party. The exception period coincided with the extraordinary regionally based campaigns of native southern candidates Thurmond (1948) and Wallace (1968) as well as with the southern transition from Democratic dominance to Republican leaning. The authors show that no other region of the country has voted with such unity in presidential elections over so long a period of time.

Deeply entangled in the transformation of the South has been the rise since the 1970s of the largely conservative evangelical-led Christian Right movement. As explained in Chapter 6, the effective mobilization of many previously apolitical evangelicals profoundly changed U.S. politics, and nowhere more than in the southern states. Although many evangelicals in the South first became politically energized with the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign in 1976, in 1980 the GOP candidate Ronald Reagan did a masterly job of reaching out to these voters, who had become disaffected with Carter's policies. Leaders of the so-called New Right reached out to such figures as Rev. Jerry Falwell of Virginia in the hopes of building a lasting GOP coalition of social and economic conservatives and foreign policy hawks. Over time the social conservative component of the New Right grew substantially, to the point where it formed the GOP's strongest core constituency in many of the southern states.

Susan MacManus traces population shifts in the South since the publication of Key's (1949) classic. She shows how the movement of voters into the South but also within the region contributed to the growth of the GOP in some areas, along with a Democratic resurgence in older suburbs. Because of the region's attractions, primary among which have been jobs, the South's population has diversified, with growing concentrations of Latinos, Asian Americans, and the elderly. With the spread of equal opportunities thanks to the civil rights movement, African Americans have returned to the region. Growing numbers of the various ethnic groups have generally increased support for the Democratic Party even as the region's whites have increasingly opted for Republican candidates.

As documented in this volume, the GOP has made impressive gains at the ballot box. As any landscaper knows, laying sod produces a lawn more quickly than planting seed. In a similar fashion, some GOP gains have come from converting successful Democratic politicians rather than working to unseat them or win open seats with novices. Antoine Yoshinaka shows that although the numbers of defecting Democratic officeholders have not been great, some of the switches have given Republicans control of an office long before they could have developed the talent and resources needed to win, as when in 1964 South Carolina's Strom Thurmond became the first Deep South Republican in the Senate in generations. In other instances, a recent convert may have brought the campaign skills needed to capitalize on growing GOP prospects for winning an office, as when the recent convert Sonny Perdue ended the string of consecutive Democratic gubernatorial victories in Georgia at fifty.

Undoubtedly some of the switches came as a result of alienation, as many former Democratic voters and some former officeholders have explained, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me.” Thurmond, the former (p. 17) States’ Rights Party presidential nominee, led a majority of white voters both in his home state and across the Deep South out of the Democratic Party and to the side of Barry Goldwater after President Johnson and the Democratic Congress made clear that it would no longer allow the South free rein over issues of race (on the Goldwater success, see Cosman 1966).

While becoming a Republican provided Thurmond with another “first,” along with the longest ever Senate filibuster and his 1948 presidential bid, in changing parties the South Carolinian proved a leader in ways that his other changes did not. In 1994 Alabama's Senator Richard Shelby converted to the GOP, and within the next two years five House Democrats helped swell the first Republican congressional majority in four decades. Other recent converts have led the GOP to gubernatorial victories in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. One of the four Republicans to govern Louisiana, Buddy Roemer, actually changed parties while in office.

Yoshinaka's chapter identifies the characteristics associated with partisan change among state legislators. His analysis of a decade's worth of data demonstrates that Democrats likely to don the Republican jersey represent affluent districts with relatively few African Americans. In addition the GOP converts are more likely to seek higher office than are a comparison set of Democrats who remain in their party.

In addition to party switchers, redistricting has helped expand the ranks of GOP officeholders. Redistricting had its greatest effect in the early 1990s. At the outset of that decade, when reviewing plans from Section 5 states, the Department of Justice (DOJ) not only checked for retrogression, which had been the basis for rejecting plans in the past, but also imposed an affirmative duty. Relying on its interpretation of Section 2, the DOJ refused to approve plans that did not increase the numbers of majority-minority districts when that was an option. The DOJ forced southern states to create an additional dozen majority-black districts and three new majority-Hispanic congressional districts. Each of these districts elected a Democrat, and all but a Texas district with a narrow Latino majority elected a member of the group that constituted a majority of the district. Creation of these new districts with concentrations of minorities bleached the surrounding districts and frequently separated veteran white Democratic members of Congress from concentrations of their supporters (Petrocik and Desposato 1998). Republicans made gains in each of the next three elections. Scholars debate the number of seats that redistricting cost Democrats (see Lublin 1997: 111–14 for a review of the differences in the estimates of Democratic seat losses attributable to redistricting), but though the impact can be disputed, additional Republican legislators accompanied the increase in the number of minority representatives (Bullock 2010).

The consequences of redistricting for congressional seats have attracted widespread interest; less attention has been devoted to whether redistricting promoted GOP gains in state legislatures, which serve as training grounds for many members of Congress. It is these institutions to which David Lublin and Thomas Schaller turn their attention. They provide an overview of court decisions that guide legislative districting practices. The Supreme Court used cases from southern states in the initial efforts to eliminate long-standing population disparities. Lublin and (p. 18) Schaller explain why the shift to Republican majorities—in the states where they have taken over the legislature—occurs at different times. Following the 2000 census Republicans, who controlled several state legislatures, continued the practice of crafting districts almost certain to elect minorities to the legislature and an even greater number of districts tilted toward the GOP. Lublin and Schaller show that a population of about 30 percent African American demarcates the threshold between districts likely to elect Democrats and Republicans.

GOP gains in 2010 brought their share of congressional and state legislative seats in the South to record levels. The ranks of white Democrats declined still further and for the first time, Republicans won majorities in both houses of the Alabama legislature and in the North Carolina Senate. As a result of these gains, in some states Republicans may find it difficult to devise plans likely to yield them many more seats even though for the first time the GOP controls the state's redistricting process. However in some states, where Republicans have only recently achieved majority status in the legislature, they may find ways to not only bolster the districts they currently hold but to expand on their majorities.

The other major factor transforming the South has been the entry of African Americans into full partnership in the southern political arena. The civil rights movement, which is the topic of Seth McKee’s contribution, arguably did more to change the politics of the South than any other event. Having antecedents in A. Phillip Randolph's threatened March on Washington to secure black access to jobs in the defense industry and NAACP-sponsored challenges to the white primary and separate but equal policies, Martin Luther King Jr. used civil disobedience as the battering ram to breach Jim Crow's barriers following Brown v. Board of Education. With white supremacy under attack, white southerners responded as predicted by Key's black threat thesis, often meeting peaceful protesters trying to secure the right to vote or to desegregate schools with violence, as happened in Little Rock, Birmingham, and Selma. Ultimately violent white resistance stirred northern public opinion, leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and, the next year, the Voting Rights Act.

McKee briefly chronicles the reaction to these federal initiatives and the subsequent increase in black political participation in the South. In reaction to the advances, whites began shifting to the GOP as newly enfranchised African Americans became the core constituency of the Democratic Party.

The top priority of the civil rights movement was removing barriers to political participation. As both King and Johnson recognized, once African Americans could vote, they could use their political power to bring about change in other areas. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which came after three previous congressional efforts to protect the suffrage, proved far more effective than its predecessors. In short order black participation even in states and counties most resistant to change saw the ranks of black registrants swell dramatically (Bullock and Gaddie 2009). Two sections of the Voting Rights Act provided the basis for legal challenges to discriminatory practices.

Ronald Weber provides a thorough review of the use of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to challenge at-large and multimember districting plans. In a state- (p. 19) by-state analysis, Weber, who participated as an expert in many of the leading cases in this area of the law, details the legal challenges and their impact in increasing the numbers of African Americans and Latinos serving on collegial bodies. The analysis extends from the South's congressional delegations to state legislative chambers to selected cases challenging the electoral systems used for city, county, and school board governing bodies.

The other especially salient feature of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5, has been a factor in promoting minority political opportunities longer than Section 2. The DOJ has used Section 5, a temporary measure that provides most of the Act's enforcement muscle, since 1965. Unlike Section 2, which applies nationwide, Section 5 has impacted only states that had a test or device as a prerequisite to registration and low turnout rates in the 1964, 1968, or 1972 presidential elections. Currently sixteen states are wholly or partially subject to Section 5. Initially the U.S. attorney general used the authority of Section 5 to send in federal officials to register African Americans who local white registrars had illegally turned away and to monitor the conduct of elections. Section 5 also banned the use of tests and devices, including the literacy test, as conditions for registering in the covered jurisdictions.

Section 5 had an immediate impact. As Michael Fauntroy shows, hundreds of thousands of African Americans signed up to vote with the new protections in place, and this new electorate began influencing election outcomes, ultimately electing thousands of blacks to positions ranging from local city council members, school board members, and county commissions to state legislators and members of Congress. The longest-lived aspect of Section 5 and the portion that has been renewed repeatedly required that the states subject to this provision must obtain federal approval before implementing changes in any aspect of their election laws or practices. The most frequently pursued path for getting approval involved submitting the change to the U.S. attorney general. As an alternative, a jurisdiction could seek a declaratory judgment from the district court of the District of Columbia that the proposed change was not discriminatory. Fauntroy provides data on the preclearance workload and shows how the types of issues submitted to DOJ for preclearance have changed over time.

Liberals and conservatives agree that the Voting Rights Act has been the most effective civil right legislation ever enacted. Although the extension of Section 5 coverage for another twenty-five years passed in 2006 with overwhelming majorities in both chambers, some witnesses who appeared at the congressional hearings questioned whether the environment that prompted the Voting Rights Acts remained applicable for covered jurisdiction through the first third of the twenty-first century. Ultimately the Supreme Court will be asked to decide whether the misdeeds of selected jurisdictions that denied minorities equal access to participation warrant a continuation of the federal intrusion into the structuring of elections, which has historically been a state or local responsibility.

The initial version of the Voting Rights Act dealt with obstacles to African American participation. The renewal in 1975 broadened the scope to include language minorities, in part due to pressure from Texas Latinos who had observed the effectiveness of the initial legislation in expanding black registration, turnout, and (p. 20) officeholding (Thernstrom 1987). The expanded Voting Rights Act made all of Texas and five Florida counties subject to Section 5 so that they had to secure preclearance of laws impacting elections. As it did for African Americans, the Act has facilitated Latino participation and resulted in growing ranks of Latino public officials.

James Lamare, J. L. Polinard, Joseph Stewart, and Robert D. Wrinkle trace the dramatic growth in the South's Latino population. The past generation has seen this population not only grow but spread eastward, lured by jobs in construction and as day laborers. As the first decade of the twenty-first century drew to a close, Latinos constituted more than 33 percent of the population of Texas and more than 20 percent in Florida. In four other states where Latinos made up less than 2 percent of the population in 1990, they now account for more than 5 percent. As numbers of Latinos have grown, provision of services to those not in the country legally has become controversial. Republicans have sought to politicize the issue by demanding that steps be taken to send those in the country illegally back to their home country. Some moderate to conservative Democrats have joined in those calls.

In areas that have attracted these new immigrants, their impact on the school systems has outpaced Latino growth in the general population. At the same time, Latino political influence has lagged behind their presence in the population. Several reasons account for this difference, but a major factor is that many Latinos cannot participate in political life because of their citizenship status, although even among citizens Latino participation rates are often only half those for whites and African Americans (Bullock and Gaddie 2009; Bullock and Hood 2006).

The influx of Hispanics into Texas, a state that has had a substantial Latino population ever since the Texas Republic broke away from Mexico, has made it one of four in which whites have ceased to be the majority population, although they remain a plurality. The spread of Latinos across the region is a major factor, but not the only one, in producing a more racially and ethnically diverse population. Historically, southern culture and politics have been characterized as a duality. In Florida and Texas a focus on two races and cultures is woefully incomplete, as Lamare and his colleagues demonstrate. Although beyond the scope of this volume, even a three-pronged approach will likely prove inadequate in the near future as the South becomes home to growing numbers of residents who trace their heritage to China, India, Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of the world.

Until the 1960s, when southern politicians moderated their stand on racial matters so as to enter the mainstream and become eligible for the presidency, the legislative branch provided the South with its primary opportunity to shape national policy. Stanley Berard examines southern influence in Congress from the 1930s to the present. As he shows, into the 1960s conservative southern Democrats frequently joined with Republicans to thwart liberal Democratic initiatives, except for those items that improved the economy of the South. Southern Democratic committee chairs could often keep liberal proposals bottled up in committee. If they failed in those efforts, the Conservative Coalition might moderate the proposal on the floor of the House or filibuster the bill in the Senate (see Brady and Bullock 1980; Shelley 1983). The pivotal position of southern Democrats deteriorated as liberal Democrats replaced (p. 21) Republicans in northern districts between 1958 and 1964. Once the position of the median Democrat shifted leftward, reformers secured votes needed to alter chamber rules so as to weaken committee chairs while simultaneously strengthening the hand of party leaders and making chairs more responsive to the Democratic Caucus.

As Berard demonstrates, by the time Republicans secured majorities in both chambers following the 1994 election, the ideological split in the Democratic Party had been bridged as Republicans replaced conservative Democrats from southern districts while the remaining southern House Democrats either shifted leftward in response to African Americans who constituted a critical component in many districts or were supplanted by minority legislators. Southerners held many party leadership posts during the period of Republican majority (1995–2006), but Berard argues that they were less pivotal than when Democrats constituted the majority because southern Republicans were generally the most conservative members of Congress, while southern Democrats had been more strategically positioned, until recently being ideologically between northern Democrats and Republicans. Thus southern Democrats traditionally had a moderating influence on legislation, a role not embraced by southern Republicans.

In the volume's final essay, Augustus Cochran returns to the notion of southern convergence with the rest of the nation. While Key and many others had hoped that the South would become more like the non-South with competitive two-party politics and a political system open to the participation of all citizens regardless of race, Cochran argues that the convergence that has occurred resulted from the movement of the North toward the South. The conservative politics favored by the South spread, at least temporarily, across the nation during the Reagan presidency and the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. Southern influence in the Republican Party expanded just as the GOP became the dominant national party, first in presidential elections and then in the 1990s in Congress. Southern influence extended beyond politics to include the economy, as the low-wage antiunionism that characterized the region flourished while the economic model based on union-won benefits that characterized the Big Three automakers struggled. In sum, Cochran contends that the influence of the South has contributed to a rightward drift of the nation. The convergence was not exclusively in the direction of the South, as the barriers to African American political participation have been eliminated along with the separate-but-equal approach that maintained racial separation in the region.

Still Distinctive?

 The Evolving Politics of the South

Figure 1.1 Shares of Democratic Electoral College votes by region.

While Cochran and a number of the other authors in this volume offer strong evidence of convergence, in terms of election results the South remains distinctive. Figures 1.1 and 1.2 provide figures on the shares of southern and northern Electoral College votes and Senate seats won by Democrats since 1880. During much of the (p. 22) last three-quarters of the twentieth century similarities existed in interelection changes in presidential elections in the South and North. Although the regions converged during the New Deal and in 1960, the South remained more Democratic in presidential elections until 1964. Since that first instance in which the Democratic nominee got a larger share of the northern than the southern electors, the North has remained more Democratic than the South except in 1976, when the first president elected from the Deep South reunified the region except for Virginia. Democratic presidential nominees have carried the North in five consecutive presidential elections beginning with 1992, but because of the South's unanimous support for Republican nominees in 2000 and 2004 Democrats have managed only three victories. The South also provided the margin of victory in the presidential elections of 1884, 1892, 1916, and 1976.

 The Evolving Politics of the South

Figure 1.2 Percentage of U.S. Senate seats held by Democrats in the South and North.

Figure 1.2, which presents Democratic shares of Senate seats, shows that rarely have the South and North followed the same pattern. Prior to 1960 Democrats usually filled all southern Senate seats; thereafter the curve has been sharply down, reaching the nadir of 18.2 percent following the 2004 election. Democrats filled at least half the southern seats until 1994 but never since then. In the North time correlates strongly with the percentage of Democrats elected (b = .006, std error = .001, R2 = 0.5). Northern Democrats first won a majority in 1934 and held that until 1942. Since 1958 Democrats have claimed most northern Senate seats, with the longest breaks being 1980–88 and 1994–2000. In the occasional Congresses prior to the New Deal when Democrats organized the Senate, the South provided the margin, as it (p. 23) did again for Democratic successes in the 1940s and the 1950s before 1958. Since then the South has infrequently tipped the balance, although Democrats would have controlled the Senate in 2000 and 2004 but for GOP strength in the South.4

Although the South is no longer as much of an outlier as in the past, neither has it lost all of its uniqueness. The white South remains more conservative, and religion plays a larger role in the South than in the nation as a whole. The conservativism now plays out in a different arena, as the region has gone from being the most Democratic in the nation to, along with the Mountain West, the most consistently Republican, forming the foot of the Republican L.

The South, however, remains dynamic. Accompanying the growth in the GOP is a dramatic expansion in the participation rates of African Americans, an increasingly diverse population, and growing ranks of black and Latino officeholders. The GOP became the region's dominant party by winning impressive majorities among white voters, but in time that may prove a fragile foundation. Texas has already ceased to be a majority white state—whites constitute a plurality of the Lone Star State's population—and other southern states will achieve that status in time. If southern Republicans do not broaden their appeal to include more than white voters, demographic trends suggest that their days of dominance in selected states and perhaps the region are limited. A Democratic Party consisting of nearly unanimous African American support coupled with votes from the region's few liberal whites and augmented by growing ranks of Latinos and Asian Americans may ultimately overwhelm the GOP.


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(1.) The finding that southerners had more liberal attitudes than northerners is in keeping with research showing that southern Democrats were frequently as liberal as or even more liberal than northern Democrats in their roll call voting in the U.S. House until the mid-1940s (Sinclair 1985).

(2.) Williams v. Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213 (1898); Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475 (1903); Giles v. Teasley, 193 U.S. 146 (1904).

(3.) Virginia is an exception, because it complied with a 1929 federal court ruling striking down its white primary.

(4.) Democrats gained control of the Senate in mid-2001, when Jim Jeffords (VT) withdrew from the GOP to become an Independent.