Six Republican presidential hopefuls visited Alabama over a 10-day period last month — including real estate mogul Donald Trump’s traveling jamboree — placing the Yellowhammer State in an unusual political spotlight.
Although it certainly seems out of the ordinary, this is hardly a first for Alabama. In fact, Dr. Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus in Auburn University’s Department of History, argues this election cycle pales in comparison to a number of presidential elections in which Alabama found itself playing a prominent role.
“I really don’t think it’s unprecedented,” Flynt said in an interview with Lagniappe on this election cycle and the GOP candidates campaigning in Alabama. “I think it’s certainly unusual.”
According to Flynt, the 1860 presidential cycle was perhaps the most important, as Alabama played an integral role in the South’s ultimate secession.
“I would certainly rate that one as more important — both nationally and in terms of the state and in terms of turnout,” Flynt said. “And also in the 1860s all the major candidates came to Alabama and, in fact, Stephen A. Douglas was in Mobile the day of the election. Lincoln obviously didn’t come, but the three Whig and Democratic candidates all came here and spent a lot of time in this state. So, absent Abraham Lincoln, for obvious reasons — knew he couldn’t carry the state and wasn’t interested in coming here — I think the 1860 campaign would certainly match this one.”
In that crowded field, Douglas would finish second in the popular vote, but fourth in the electoral vote behind Lincoln. Just months later, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina.
The 1932 election between incumbent Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, although not close statewide, was another in which Alabama played a prominent role. Based on the vote tally in that election, the only weakness Roosevelt had electorally in the South was in the Tennessee River Valley in Tennessee and Alabama. That region was hit hard by the Great Depression. The average income was a paltry $639 annually.
Roosevelt, however, would address that with a massive New Deal public works project with the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“Franklin Roosevelt — he actually visited Alabama. He announced the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority in Alabama. He spent a lot of time up in North Alabama and although it was certainly not a competitive election, Roosevelt’s presence here was electrifying at a time when this state was so terrified — attitudes not unlike they are now. Everybody expressing huge anxiety about the future. The rate of unemployment was 25 percent.
“We’re upset about the future of the country and Alabama’s unemployment rate is 6 percent. Imagine what it was in 1932 when it was 25 percent,” Flynt said.
Flynt also ranked the infamous 1948 election with the Dixiecrat insurgency and the 1964 Lyndon Johnson-Barry Goldwater contest high on his list of all-time important presidential elections for Alabama.
The 1948 presidential election was important for Alabama because it was the birthplace of the Dixiecrats, also known more formally as the States’ Rights Democratic Party.
“What made that election so significant was the Dixiecrat Party was formed in Birmingham at what is now called Boutwell Auditorium,” he said. “It was heavily segregationist, racist, Confederate flags, Strom Thurmond — national figures from all the Southern states at least, leaders of the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party. But at the same time, the national wing of the Democratic Party was still very strong in Alabama.”
Although it wasn’t competitive nationally, the 1964 presidential election was a turning point for Alabama politics. Goldwater only carried six states in the landslide victory for Johnson but that signaled the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party’s dominance in Alabama politics.
“The other election that was just absolutely transformative was the 1964 Goldwater and Wallace contest. I would date the eclipse of the Democratic Party as beginning in 1964, when Goldwater came to the state. Although he had been a member of the NAACP in Arizona, he was certainly viewed as way far right and very attractive to a lot of suburban whites. Probably the only thing that kept the state from flipping completely into the Republican column in the 1960s was George Wallace — Wallace running as a sort of independent Democrat kept the state in line into the 1970s,” Flynt said.
“But I argue the real tipping point for Alabama politics was 1964, when Goldwater came here and offered a conservative Republican option that was very attractive from that point and now is sort of the dominant political ideology of the state.”
It wouldn’t be until 2010 that the state was dominated by Republican politicians statewide from top to bottom. But now that Alabama is clearly in the GOP column, Flynt argued the GOP will take Alabama for granted in the general election and the Democrats will concede the state.
Once Alabama’s March 1, 2016, primary has passed, that will be the end of Alabama’s time in the spotlight.
“Furthermore, I can guarantee you the Republicans care not one hoot in hell about Alabama after the primaries. You will not see a Republican presidential candidate come to Alabama between the August nominating convention and the 2016 general election in November,” Flynt said. “They’re going to be in Ohio. They’re going to be in Virginia. They’re going to be in Florida. They’re going to be all around us but they’re not going to be coming here and the reason they’re not coming here is there is no reason to.”
As for the Democratic side, there is an outside chance that Democratic candidates could spend time here.
“If Joe Biden is a candidate, it may well be Joe Biden would come here,” Flynt said. “It may well be that Hillary Clinton would show up. But I doubt that because I think it is pretty obvious that the black vote is going to Hillary Clinton. So I would be surprised if she spent any time here.”
Outside of perhaps Nick Saban openly campaigning for a Democratic candidate, the prospects of Alabama ever becoming a swing state are dim. In a contest with two major candidates, historically Alabama has never been up grabs.
If Ronald Reagan had been the Republican nominee in 1976, it might have created the unique circumstances for a competitive general election, according to Flynt.
“Probably the closest thing to that would be Jimmy Carter in 1976, because the Republican Party was well established by 1976, although Gerald Ford was certainly not as attractive a candidate as Reagan would have been. In 1976, if it had been Carter versus Reagan, that would have been a really interesting race. But as it was, you got a peanut farmer from Georgia. I certainly wouldn’t call him a Wallace man, but he never said anything harmful about Wallace or hurtful about Wallace.”
The 2016 presidential election is more than 400 days away. The life span of Alabama’s role in the 2016 presidential action will be for less than half that time.