Race, Presidential Politics, and the Winner-Take-All Rule
The political realignment of the South is unquestionably the single most striking development in American presidential politics since 1948. Once a solid bloc of Democratic electoral votes, the South is now a more-or-less solid bloc of Republican electoral votes. Although the reasons for this shift are complex, it is beyond question that one of the principal forces driving it has been the violent opposition of white Southern politicians to the civil rights policies of the national Democratic party. This section argues that this shift is intimately bound up with the politics of the electoral college, and in particular with the dominance of the winner-take-all system, which tends to ensure that the South will vote as a bloc. The national Republican party's efforts to control this bloc have forced it to move much farther to the right on issues of race, while the national Democratic party has scrambled to solidify its base of African-American voters. Modern presidential politics -- not just in the South, but in the nation as a whole -- can therefore only be understood in the context of this history. Accordingly, this section examines the ways in which Southern politicians have attempted to use their influence in the electoral college to exert control over national issues relating to race and civil rights.
Strom Thurmond and the "Dixiecrat" Campaign of 1948
The presidential campaign of 1948 marked the first in a series of efforts by white Southern politicians to manipulate the machinery of the electoral college to influence the national debate on civil rights. In that year, Southern Democrats in four states abandoned their party's nominee, President Harry S. Truman, and threw their support behind a segregationist ticket headed by J. Strom Thurmond, the Democratic governor of South Carolina.
Although "states' rights" was the rallying cry of the Southern Democrats -- or "Dixiecrats," as they became known in common parlance -- the true force that bound them together was their violent opposition to any measure of social and political equality for African-Americans. In 1948, the pressures that would ultimately crack the prevailing segregationist power structure of the South were just beginning to mount. Late in December 1947, the Fourth Circuit had upheld a federal court decision ordering the South Carolina Democratic party to allow blacks to vote in its primary. In February 1948, President Truman delivered a civil rights message to a joint session of Congress, calling for abolition of poll taxes, enactment of a federal anti-lynching law, creation of a permanent federal employment commission, and new measures to end discrimination in interstate transportation facilities. White Southerners were enraged. They responded with angry denunciations and threats to abandon the Democratic party, as well as with Ku Klux Klan rallies and cross burnings throughout the South.
Southern politicians were determined to use their influence in the electoral college to defeat Truman's agenda. The intellectual blueprint for their strategy was an unabashedly racist political manifesto by Charles Wallace Collins, a Harvard-educated Alabama lawyer with an extensive background in federal government service, including stints as the law librarian of Congress and the librarian of the Supreme Court. His book, entitled Whither Solid South? A Study in Politics and Race Relations, portrayed the South as a region under legislative siege by a conspiracy of, among others, "the Negroes and the New York City radicals." With undeniable candor and considerable prescience, Collins wrote that:
These groups, with ever increasing pressure during the past ten years, are attempting to drive the South into a corner of moral isolation on the Negro race question, as a vantage point for hostile action. I have shown how these organizations . . . are rallying to a new philosophy the slogan of which is the word "democracy" which in its very concept condemns in one breath the whole southern system, and how the whole movement is anchored to a craftily conceived legislative program to make the Negro equal to the white man economically, politically and socially.Collins proposed that white Southerners should combat these efforts by abandoning the Democratic party and allying themselves with conservative Republicans in the North and West. Failing that, he called on Southern Democrats simply to break away from the Northern Democrats and form their own political party.
Manipulation of the electoral college was the crux of Collins's strategy. He noted that:
[T]here are two . . . weapons of respectability available to the South which cannot be taken away from her without her consent -- namely, her almost certain ability to prevent the Constitution from being amended and her power in the Electoral College. I have pointed out the logic of the conversion of the present Republican-Southern Democratic coalition into a new conservative political party. If that cannot be done it would be better for the South to fight independently in the Electoral College than to continue to keep political company with the left-wing New Dealers who are at heart the South's most bitter enemies.Collins proposed three distinct methods by which the South might tinker with the electoral machinery to block civil rights legislation. The first would be for Southern Democrats simply to nominate their own candidates for President and Vice President, along with slates of electors pledged to support them. By controlling a large bloc of electoral votes, a Southern Democratic party could force the election into the House of Representatives, and possibly control the outcome. Collins acknowledged that this plan had drawbacks. The principal one was that "the old Democratic Party in the North" might also try to run candidates in the South, and that "old loyalties" might prevail. To avoid this possibility, Collins proposed an alternative: abolition of the popular vote and direct appointment by the states of presidential electors pledged to support a Southern party nominee. As a third strategy, he suggested that Southern Democrats appoint electors who were not pledged to support the national party's nominee. The unpledged electors would then hold a convention after the popular vote in December and decide whom to support.
The reaction of white Southern politicians to Truman's civil rights initiatives bears the unmistakable imprint of Collins's ideas. Four days after Truman's announcement, Southern governors met at Wakulla Springs, Florida, and denounced the President's efforts to end segregation. They adopted a resolution, written largely by Thurmond, which condemned efforts to undermine "the racial integrity and purity of the white and the negro races alike," and promised that white Southerners would not
stand idle and let all of this happen, for the sole purpose of enticing an infinitesimal minority of organized pressure blocs to vote for one or another candidate for the Presidency. It is thought that we have no redress. This assumption ignores the electoral college set up in the Constitution of the United States.Determined to use their influence in the electoral college to deny Truman the Democratic nomination, party officials in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina were soon in open rebellion. The Alabama Democrats adopted a new emblem for their state party: a rooster emblazoned with the words "White Supremacy" and "For the Right." Southern Democrats arrived at the national party convention in Philadelphia intending to keep any pro-civil rights language out of the party platform. When their efforts failed and a civil rights plank was included in the platform, half of the Alabama delegation and the entire Mississippi delegation walked out of the convention. At a rump convention in Birmingham, Southern Democrats nominated Thurmond as their candidate for President. The new nominee delivered a fiery acceptance speech, declaring, "[T]here's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."
Thurmond's aim was to force the election into the House, where Southern influence would either lead to his election as President or force the major parties to adopt conciliatory policies on civil rights. The dominance of the winner-take-all rule was crucial to this strategy. Rather than running Thurmond as a third-party candidate, the Dixiecrats sought to use the existing Democratic party machinery. Because of the Democrats' nearly total domination of state politics, its slate of electors was assured victory. Hence if the Democrats in a Southern state nominated a slate of electors pledged to Thurmond, rather than Truman, Thurmond would win that state.
By August, the Democratic party in four states -- Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina -- had nominated slates of presidential electors who were pledged to support Thurmond, rather than Truman. Truman did get on the ballot in three of those states, but was shut out in Alabama. In the general election, Thurmond won all four states, receiving a total of thirty nine electoral votes. Despite the Southern defection, however, Truman managed to eke out an unexpected win over his Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey.
Although these events may seem like ancient history, they are not. One example of how recent they are in our nation's political development is the fact that Thurmond, now a Republican and the senior Senator from South Carolina, is currently serving as President of the Senate pro tem -- a position that, ironically enough, puts him fourth in line to succeed to the Presidency. The election of 1948 set the stage for a drama that was played out again in the South in the presidential elections of 1960 and 1968 and that, in many respects is still going on today.
Next: "The Free Elector Movement of 1960"