The Myth of the Racist Republicans
The myth that links the GOP with racism leads us to expect that the GOP should have advanced first and most strongly where and when the politics of white solidarity were most intense. The GOP should have entrenched itself first among Deep South whites and only later in the Periphery. The GOP should have appealed at least as much, if not more, therefore, to the less educated, working-class whites who were not its natural voters elsewhere in the country but who were George Wallace's base. The GOP should have received more support from native white Southerners raised on the region's traditional racism than from white immigrants to the region from the Midwest and elsewhere. And as the Southern electorate aged over the ensuing decades, older voters should have identified as Republicans at higher rates than younger ones raised in a less racist era.
Each prediction is wrong. The evidence suggests that the GOP advanced in the South because it attracted much the same upwardly mobile (and non-union) economic and religious conservatives that it did elsewhere in the country.
Take presidential voting. Under FDR, the Democrats successfully assembled a daunting, cross-regional coalition of presidential voters. To compete, the GOP had to develop a broader national outreach of its own, which meant adding a Southern strategy to its arsenal. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower took his campaign as national hero southward. He, like Nixon in 1960, polled badly among Deep South whites. But Ike won four states in the Peripheral South. This marked their lasting realignment in presidential voting. From 1952 to the Clinton years, Virginia reverted to the Democrats only once, Florida and Tennessee twice, and Texas—except when native-son LBJ was on the ballot—only twice, narrowly. Additionally, since 1952, North Carolina has consistently either gone Republican or come within a few percentage points of doing so.
In other words, states representing over half the South's electoral votes at the time have been consistently in play from 1952 on—since before Brown v. Board of Education, before Goldwater, before busing, and when the Republicans were the mainstay of civil rights bills. It was this which dramatically changed the GOP's presidential prospects. The GOP's breakthrough came in the least racially polarized part of the South. And its strongest supporters most years were "New South" urban and suburban middle- and upper-income voters. In 1964, as we've seen, Goldwater did the opposite: winning in the Deep South but losing the Peripheral South. But the pre-Goldwater pattern re-emerged soon afterward. When given the option in 1968, Deep South whites strongly preferred Wallace, and Nixon became president by winning most of the Peripheral South instead. From 1972 on, GOP presidential candidates won white voters at roughly even rates in the two sub-regions, sometimes slightly more in the Deep South, sometimes not. But by then, the Deep South had only about one-third of the South's total electoral votes; so it has been the Periphery, throughout, that provided the bulk of the GOP's Southern presidential support.
A few years old, but very, very interesting and worth a (re)read.