1

Al Smith was the governor of New York who ran for President against Herbert Hoover in 1928. A factor in the race was that he was also the first Catholic to run on a major party ticket (John F. Kennedy was the second).

Smith won two New England states, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where his Catholic background probably helped, rather than hurt him (and narrowly lost his home state of New York). Apart from that, he won six future "Dixiecrat" states: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, most of which were won by Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 as right-wing "independent" Democrats.

These "Dixiecrat" states were most influenced by the Ku Klux Klan, which were highly anti-Catholic. Yet Smith won these states, while most of the rest of the country voted against him, including southern states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. (Texas was close.)

Why was that?

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    Particularly odd since according to Wikipedia at that time he was progressive, pro civil rights, a wet, and a northerner, as well as a Catholic. – Ne Mo Sep 26 '20 at 15:47
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This was the period of The Solid South, and considering that, Al Smith actually did remarkably badly there in the election of 1928.

Here's a map color-coded by how often "solid south" states voted for the Democratic nominee for President:

Solid South

Now let's compare 1928 to the elections before and after it:

1924:1924 Solid South

1928: enter image description here

1932: enter image description here

So the way to look it this isn't that the Democratic candidate managed to carry 6 southern states in 1928. The way to look at it is that the Democratic candidate managed to lose 8 (more than half) of the states in the "Solid South". And yes, that was almost certainly due to his lack of appeal to White Supremacist voters.

  • This talks about the "what," but not the "why." Also, I would argue that states which supported Thurmond and Wallace voted for a "Democratic" nominee but not "the" (official) Democratic nominee (Truman in 1948, Humphrey in 1968. – Tom Au Sep 26 '20 at 19:04
  • If you look at first map again, what he kept were only the hardest of the hardcore Democratic southern states, plus Louisiana. Louisiana of course was electorally dominated by New Orleans, which is itself heavily Catholic and inclined to vote "wet". The other states clearly had just enough Republicans to (very) occasionally swing a presidential vote that way. – T.E.D. Sep 26 '20 at 20:52
  • The explanation makes sense to me: he won those states because their voters were strongly hostile towards the Republican party. He lost other 'solid' states because of the aforementioned political and religious differences with those places. It gives rise to the questions why southerners were so hostile to the Republicans and (imho more interesting) why northerners were not willing to vote Democratic when Smith arguably was aligned more closely to their beliefs than Hoover, but that's different from the question asked. – Ne Mo Sep 28 '20 at 16:07
  • @NeMo Back then, 'Party of Lincoln' was still a big issue for southerns regarding the Republican party. – suchiuomizu Sep 28 '20 at 21:59
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That was because of the nature of the Democratic party in the 100 years or so after the Civil War. During most of that time, the Republicans were the centrist, pro business party, while the Democrats were "everyone who was not a Republican." In 1928, this included an unlikely mixture of right and left; southern plantation owners, western agrarians, northern urban laborers, etc. Basically anyone who wasn't a northern capitalist.*

As late as the 1960s George Wallace (racist right) and George McGovern (radical left) were leaders in the same (Democratic) party. It is noteworthy that Smith "straddled" this party by winning the one state won by McGovern in 1972, Massachusetts (as well as neighboring Rhode Island), and the five states won by Wallace in 1968 (plus South Carolina which Strom Thurmond "flipped" to Nixon in 1968).

Hoover ran and won on a ticket of "peace and prosperity" (under his predecessor Coolidge). Most of the country bought this ticket. As strange as it may seem, the six southern states appeared not to buy into "Yankee" prosperity, even though they were the poorest part of the country. This occurred to the point where they were willing to vote for a Catholic rather than a Republican.

There used to be a term "yellow dog Democrat" referring to someone (usually southern) who would rather vote for a yellow dog running on the Democratic ticket than for any (human) Republican. That appears to be what happened in 1928. The fact that Smith had a running mate from Arkansas probably helped him to win the six southern states. Only Massachusetts and Rhode Island constituted his natural base.

*In 1932, the Democrats won the Presidency with a left-right ticket of Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York and John Nance Garner of Texas against the failed centrist, Herbert Hoover.

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