Race, Presidential Politics, and the Winner-Take-All Rule (3 of 4)

The following excerpt from “The Illegitimate President: Minority Vote Dilution and the Electoral College,” by Matthew M. Hoffman is presented under the fair use Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act. The article was published in The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 105, No. 4 (Jan., 1996), pp. 935-1021. I have removed the extensive footnotes to facilitate presentation in the blog format.

The Wallace Campaign of 1968 and the Rise of the Republican South

Overt racist appeals and efforts to manipulate the electoral system materialized again in the election of 1968. That election saw yet another attempt by an openly segregationist third-party challenger to manipulate the electoral system. This time the challenger was Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, who had become notorious for his no-holds-barred stance against integration when, in his 1963 inaugural address, he proclaimed that, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation now . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.” Furthermore, the 1968 election marked the beginning of the modem period of Republican domination of the South, as an increasing number of one-time Dixiecrats began to shift their allegiance to Nixon and the GOP.

In many respects, Wallace’s campaign was similar to Thurmond’s campaign in 1948. Blatant racism and continued support for segregation were integral to the message delivered by both men. There was one key difference, however. Wallace, unlike Thurmond, was determined to wage a nationwide campaign. His supporters were highly organized, and they managed to get his name placed on the ballot in all fifty states-a logistical feat that many had thought impossible for a third-party candidate.  Wallace was aided in this effort by the fact that, by 1968, race was no longer simply a Southern issue. Beginning with the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, a series of violent disturbances in urban black neighborhoods had forced race to the forefront of the nation’s political consciousness. In 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King touched off a wave of riots in more than 100 cities throughout the nation, resulting in thirty-nine deaths and almost 20,000 arrests. This tide of violence prompted both Wallace and the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, to make “law and order” a prominent theme of the presidential campaign-a theme that in Wallace’s rhetoric had none-too-subtle racial overtones. School desegregation efforts, once limited to the South, were gathering strength in other areas, offering Wallace and Nixon another campaign theme.

Wallace’s strategy was also similar to that of his Dixiecrat predecessor -­  but with one important twist. As he revealed in an interview after the election, he never had any intention of letting the election go into the House, where he would not have controlled a single state delegation. If he had collected enough electoral votes to block either of the two major party nominees — Hubert Humphrey for the Democrats, or Richard Nixon for the Republicans-from getting an electoral college majority, Wallace would have attempted to strike a bargain with Nixon, throwing the support of Wallace’s electors to the Republican in exchange for concessions on civil rights.

The 1968 election also solidified Republican domination of the “Solid South.” Prodded by Thurmond, who had become a Republican in 1964, the GOP began to bid heavily for the support of the Dixiecrats. In the presidential election, Thurmond and other one-time Democrats threw their support behind Nixon.  The “Southern strategy” paid off, not just for Nixon in 1968, but for the Republican party. By appealing to the white segregationist bloc that had controlled Southern politics since the end of Reconstruction, Nixon captured six Southern states: Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Wallace won another five states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Once again, the winner-take-all system ensured that African-American voters, unlikely to support either Wallace or the Thurmond-backed Nixon, could not choose a single elector in these eleven states.

Next: “Racial Politics and Present-Day [1996] Campaigns