Race, Presidential Politics, and the Winner-Take-All Rule (4 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.

Racial Politics and Present-Day [1996] Campaigns

In the four most recent presidential elections, the South has been solidly in the Republican camp, notwithstanding a dramatic surge in the number of African-Americans registered to vote. But as the gradual realignment of white Southerners from 1948 to 1968 makes clear, the current Republican domination of the electoral college in the South is no accident. Rather, it is in large part the result of a conscious effort by white Southern politicians — first by segregationist Democrats, and later by racially conservative Republicans -­ to make race a focal point of presidential politics.

Today, race remains a polarizing force in presidential politics. The realignment of the bloc of white racial conservatives from the Democratic party to the Republican party has altered the political picture, however. Because of this shift, racial conservatives no longer need to manipulate the electoral college in the manner that Thurmond and Wallace attempted. Instead, they rely on the discriminatory mathematics of the winner-take-all system, which ensures that racial minorities have no voice in determining the composition of the electoral college. Republicans today often refer to their party as having a “lock” on the electoral college by virtue of its dominance in the South. Such terminology echoes-though perhaps unconsciously-the language used by Collins nearly fifty years ago.

Racial appeals continue to be a staple of presidential politics. Rather than relying on overt racist imagery, as Thurmond did in 1948, modern politicians generally play the “race card” through subtle use of code words and careful manipulation of racial imagery. For example, George Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988 is frequently attributed to his campaign’s skillful handling of racial imagery — most notably the infamous “Willie Horton” episode. Indeed, many of the rhetorical devices and subtle racial images employed by modern-day Republicans are essentially variations on themes developed by Wallace in his 1968 campaign. Issues of race are frequently closely tied to a number of “social issues,” ranging from crime to welfare to affirmative action.

Race surfaces in other unexpected ways in our national politics. In the current presidential campaign, many members of the media enthusiastically touted General Colin Powell, a prominent African-American and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a possible Republican candidate for President. In many ways, this phenomenon was curious, because Powell had never sought public office or offered any hint of a political agenda. While the origins of the Powell non-candidacy are complex, it seems undeniable that one of the primary reasons for the media fascination with him was his race. As an African-American Republican (or at least, a presumed Republican), Powell did not fit into established categories. He was seen as someone who might be able to attract the support of both black Democrats and white Republicans. In this respect, Powell’s backers were tacitly acknowledging the stranglehold that race has on the American electorate. Indeed, Powell acknowledged as much in his speech announcing that he would not run for President, commenting that he wanted “to help the party of Lincoln move, once again, close to the spirit of Lincoln.”

Racial politics also play an important role on the other side of the political aisle. Democratic candidates frequently try to walk an almost impossibly fine line, desperately trying to distance themselves from black political interests without alienating their African-American political base.

In short, race has by no means been a trivial or incidental issue in presidential politics of the modern era. Far from it, race has been a central issue in the most important political trend of the last fifty years: the conversion of the South from a Democratic bastion to a Republican one, and the Republican party’s corresponding shift from a moderate stance on racial policies to a much more extreme position. In effect, the battle between the parties for control of the South has led to their severe divergence with respect to racial issues-a change that has been felt not just in the South, but nationwide.

For nearly five decades, politicians have been relying on the primacy of the winner-take-all scheme as a means of excluding African-American voters from the political process. The efforts of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace to inject race into the presidential contests in 1948 and 1968 help to illustrate the logic of George Bush’s attempts to do much the same thing in 1988. This recurring emphasis on race all but guarantees the continued occurrence of racially polarized voting, and consequently ensures that minority voters will not enjoy an equal opportunity to participate in the selection of their Chief Executive.