The Democrats and the 'Bubba Vote' Problem


The Los Angeles riots crowded out the North Carolina primary, sparing you a lot of reporting on "the Bubba vote" again. There was a lot of it back in March, when most Southern states held primaries.

Bubba is the cultural stereotype of Southern white male voters that so many commentators resort to when discussing Southern politics. You know, pickup truck with a gun rack and a Confederate battle flag tag, beer belly from drinking all night at the honky-tonk, rural roots, racist, blue collar, low income, high school graduate at best. . . .

I have a different reaction to the phrase. I know only two people nicknamed Bubba. One is my mother's brother; the other is my wife's. They couldn't be more different from the stereotype.

Both are professional men with advanced degrees. My uncle (Bubba I for convenience for the rest of this article) just retired as a guidance counselor at a public school in a suburb south of Atlanta. He previously was a basketball coach. My brother-in-law (Bubba II) is a senior partner is medium-sized law firm that represents mostly corporate clients in a suburb north of Atlanta.

Both are good family men. Bubba II has been married to the same woman for 32 years and provided two children with a loving home environment and a good education. Bubba I provided his three children the same. He's been married 50 years. I remember his wedding well. It was the first time I had ever seen a Marine dress uniform.

Which brings me to another point. Bubba I and Bubba II are patriots. Bubba I served in the Pacific in World War II. Bubba II was an airborne officer in the late 1950s and remained in the Army Reserve till retirement age.

Both are active in their communities: Bubba I in a civic club, Bubba II as an officer in his country club.

We don't talk race or politics a lot in my family, but I am not aware of either advocating white supremacist notions or supporting political candidates of that stripe. I am pretty sure both these Bubbas vote Republican in presidential elections.

And that, as Phil Harris used to sing, is what the Republican Party likes about the South. The GOP has a virtual lock on the Southern white male vote.

In their new book, "The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected," Earl Black and Merle Black write, "According to our estimates, the median white Republican vote in the 1972-1988 presidential elections was 67 percent." It would be higher than that if you exclude the 1976 and 1980 elections, when the Democratic nominee was Jimmy Carter of Georgia.

Using the same data the Blacks used and the same analysis technique, I calculate that the median white Democratic vote in Georgia from 1964 through 1988, excluding 1976 and 1980, was approximately 20 percent. For white men only, I'd put it at about 15-16 percent.

You would expect Bubba II to vote Republican. The country club set in every region generally votes Republican. But Bubba I is a different story. Men with his social and economic characteristics are more likely to vote Democratic in most regions. So did Bubba I and most Southerners like him 30 years ago. In 1960, just under half of white Georgians voted for John F. Kennedy.

I wouldn't be too surprised if Bubba II did. I'm pretty sure Bubba I did. Those would be fair guesses about their types if not about them specifically. My grandfather, Bubba I's father, was one of the first beneficiaries of Social Security. He adored Franklin D. Roosevelt. I'm sure he influenced his son in that direction. My father-in-law, Bubba II's father, had worked for the state and was active in Democratic Party circles. People like him knew it was important to play the game. Even the most conservative of them usually "held their noses and voted Democratic," as a Southern senator once explained his vote in a presidential election.

So white Southerners have gone from voting Democratic by about 40-plus percent to only about 20 percent since 1960.

From about 40 percent to about 20 percent is quite a change. But even those numbers do not tell the whole story.

My grandfather was typical in his FDR worship. In the four presidential elections in which FDR was a candidate, he got 91.6 percent of the vote in Georgia, 87.1 percent, 84.7 percent and 81.7 percent. Those percentages are of the total state vote. Few blacks voted then, and many who did voted Republican in those days. It is possible that the median white vote for FDR in those four elections was close to 90 percent.

So in the 1930s and 1940s, most of the Bubba IIs of Georgia and the South voted contrary to the way their social and economic peers in other regions did. Now in the 1980s and 1990s, most of the Bubba Is are voting contrary to their peers elsewhere.


"The great white shift," as Professors Earl (University of South Carolina) and Merle (Emory University) Black label it, began in 1964 as a direct result of the Democrats' pushing to enactment the landmark Civil Rights Act, over the opposition of that year's Republican presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater. (Some observers say events like the recent riot in Los Angeles are what move white voters to the Republican Party. Maybe in other parts of the country the riots of 1965, 1967 and 1968 had that effect. But Everybubba was ahead of that curve. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson got a majority of the white vote in every other region of the country -- but less than 40 percent in the Deep South.)

So pure and simple race politics is the principle reason for the shift. But there's more to it than simple race politics. And race politics is not that simple anymore, either.

"I'd start with race," Merle Black told me this week. "But it's not like the old white supremacy. It's not about wanting special advantage or beliefs in biological inferiority on the part of blacks. It's different. What white Southerners want is equitable treatment, reasonable policies about schools and jobs."

In 1972 and thereafter, Democratic platforms have called for affirmative action policies in most areas of activity. White Southerners see this as creating a special preference for blacks. Their Republicanism grows more from self-interest than from racism.

In addition to this, Southern males are likely to be very pro-military. The military tradition is strong among Southerners, and the military is big in the economy of the South. The modern Democratic Party had barely begun to live down its Vietnam War-protesters legacy when the gulf war came along -- and large majorities of Democrats in Congress voted against the president's policy.

The South is different on jobs policy, too. Georgia (like Arkansas and the rest of the South) is right-to-work country. The union movement, so important to the Democratic leadership, is weak in the South and even regarded with some hostility by many Southern working men and women.

There are cultural differences, as well. The South is more square and straight than the Northeast and Midwest, and probably than the West, too. Bubba doesn't know a lot about art, but he knows what he doesn't like. It is no accident that the leading opponents of unconventional lifestyles and artistic expression are a senator from North Carolina and a preacher from Mississippi.

The Democratic Party seems to be moving away from some of the policies and attitudes that turned the South into a Republican hunting preserve. At its 1991 convention the Democratic Leadership Council (then headed by Gov. Bill Clinton) adopted a resolution that said among other things:

"We believe the role of government is to guarantee equal opportunity, not mandate equal outcomes. . . . We believe that America must lead the march of nations toward democracy and free enterprise, not retreat from the world. Some things are worth fighting for. . . . We believe in government that stays true to America's moral and cultural values."

Those are things that a Republican platform might include, in identical language. They should appeal to the Bubbas (the ones I know and the stereotypes) of the South.

Furthermore, the Republicans are moving a little toward the center, too. Earl and Merle Black quote an unnamed aide in the Ronald Reagan White House about the race issue. "You say stuff like 'forced busing,' 'state's rights' and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract that you're talking about cutting taxes, and all the things you're talking about are totally economic things . . . and I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, then we are doing away with the racial problem, one way or another."

Yes, and that means doing away with the racial issue. The proof of that is that President Bush signed a pretty good, pretty far-reaching civil rights bill last year that had been voted for by 21 of 34 Southern Republicans in the House of Representatives and 6 of 7 Southern Republican senators.

I'm not optimistic about the Democratic chances in the South. For the Democratic Party to get a substantial number of Bubbas -- the stereotypical and the others -- and their friends and families back in the habit of voting for its presidential candidates, it would have to change more than it is probably capable of changing in the next few years.

And even such change is not likely to have any short term effect. Southerners are slow to discard tradition, and voting Republican is traditional now in all white Southern precincts. The Republican Party of the mid-20th century was different from that of the Civil War and Reconstruction. But most Southerners continued to vote Democratic for 99 years after Appomattox, long after what happened in that era really mattered in their lives.

George Bush's Republican Party is different from Barry Goldwater's, but George Bush is probably going to sweep the South again. Some Democrats say Arkansan Bill Clinton, like Jimmy Carter in 1976, may be able to change that this year, but I doubt it. Jimmy, himself, couldn't do it today. In fact, he failed to do it in 1980.


Theo Lippman Jr. writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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