Party Leaders and Electoral Realignment: Democratic and Republican Southern Strategies, 1948–1968

Boris Heersink 1
  • 1 Fordham University, Bronx, NY, USA
Boris Heersink


Political scientists who have studied electoral realignments in the American party system increasingly focus on explaining such changes as the result of major historical developments outside of the control of party leaders. Using both national parties’ approaches to the South in the period 1948–1968, I argue that while party leaders may be unable to cause or prevent a realignment, they do attempt to affect the way in which that process plays out. That is, while the shift of Southern White voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party itself was a largely inevitable process, the timing and context in which it played out was affected by competing strategies from both parties. Specifically, I show that between 1948 and 1964, Democratic leaders hedged their bets between attempting to keep white Southern voters in the party, or expel them in favor of black voters in the Northeast based on their assessments of the party’s electoral position. At the same time, between 1948 and 1968, Republican leaders struggled to balance an appeal to segregationist Southerners and voters in other regions before finding a winning formula in Richard Nixon’s 1968 ‘Southern strategy.’

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