How Urban-Not Rural-Areas-Led the South to the Republican Party

Yes I am a liberal northern yankee, but I have not come to praise, bury, (or burn) the South. Nor have I come to shred conservatism in general (that’s for other posts). While race is most definintly a big reason for the shift of the South to the GOP it is not the only (or perhaps even the biggest) reason for the shift. Indeed, all social issues compete with economics as a reason for the South’s political shift.

In popular history the shift of the South to the GOP is often thought to originate in rural areas.

Fact: This is not a rural uprising. For one thing, the south is not (and has not been for quite sometime) majority rural. “Between 1950 and 1970 the ratio of southerners living in metropolitan areas increased from 34.5% to 55.2%. Half the population of Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee lived in non-rural areas. In the three largest southern states (Virginia, Florida, and Texas) over two-thirds of the population in those states lived in metro areas,” (Lassiter, The Silent Majority, p. 230). Giving the growing urban and suburbanization of the South since 1970 it’s a cinch that all these metro percentages are higher now.

Fact: Urbanized area went Republican before many rural areas did. In 1960, Nixon managed to defeat Kennedy in 5 southern states and only narrowly lost Texas to JFK. Was this the result of Nixon’s appeal to the small towns of the Old South? No. “The Sharpest buldge in the Nixon-Republican total was chalked up in the bustling modern cities of the New South: in Dallas, in Houston, in Birmingham, in Atlanta and their suburbs.” (Making of President: 1960 p. 440).

Nor was this new to 1960. In 1952 after the rapid spread of the upper middle class during and after WWII Eisenhower won 70% of upper-income urban whites. So the key year of first (and permanent) Republican voting in the South was not 1968 or 1964, but 1952.

Lest anyone thinks this has changed look at 1996. Even though Dems ran a southern candidate “among metropolitan white voters there were twice as many Core Republicans (54%) to Core Democrats (27%)…. Meanwhile, Republican growth in the metropolitan South has been based chiefly on votes from the expanding middle-and upper income classes” (Merle and Earle Black, Rise of Southern Republicans, p. 266). This is true despite the fact that the religious rights has less of a presence in metropolitan areas than in rural ones.

Finally, while many suburbs may look alike all over this country they don’t vote alike. In the suburbs, as in most places, the wealthier the voter the more likely he or she is to vote Republican. But look at this division.

In 1996, 2000, and 2004 the Democratic candidates won 49.2%, 48.4%, and 48.3% of the official vote. All three candidacies won 47% of the suburban vote. “So to win Democrats must increase their vote totals in the surburbs.” Well, yes but keep this in mind: In 2000 Al Gore won the total non-southern suburban vote by about 15 percentage points. Bush won the total southern suburban vote by 20 percentage points! (Almanac of American Politics 2002, p. 47). Given the fact that 1996 Clinton and 2004 Kerry had national and suburban totals that were very similar-if not identical-to Gore’s, it’s a cinch to believe that the big division between non-southern and suburban voters repeated itself in 1996 and 2004.

So the rural South’s voting majority Republican lines up with the rest of the country. The phenomena of metropolitan areas (including the suburbs) voting Republican is almost entirely a southern phenomena. Of course, many cities (e.g. majority-black Atlanta) currently vote Democrat, but it’s vote is more than canceled out by the growing suburbs and it’s big slant towards the Republicans (e.g. Cobb County of Georgia).

Next: More Than One South: Outer vs. Deep Pt. 2 .

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About Nick

Teacher of Social Studies. Born in the 1970s. History major, music minor. Big Baseball fan. Economic progressive.
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6 Responses to How Urban-Not Rural-Areas-Led the South to the Republican Party

  1. battlebob says:

    Great work as usual.
    Be careful using Eisenhower stats. Because of his leadership in WWII, he was popular even with staunch Democrats like my dad; who voted for Ike twice – it was the only two times he ever voted for a Republican).

    I am confused. The conventional wisdom has Kerry winning all population centers of over 100k people.

  2. Darth Malice says:

    We still have a lot of “Boss Hogg” Dems running the show here in South Georgia.They run the counties and sherriffs departments.National Dems would have not much in common with them,but they are Dems out of habit.

  3. Nick says:


    It’s true that Kerry won at least 60% of the vote of population centers of over 100,000 people (and probably won upwards of 62%-63%. While Kerry won these voters in a landslide to be sure, at least 37% voted for Bush. Looking at the red states outside the South, most don’t have large urban centers, unless there’s a major city in SD or Wyoming I’m not aware of. At the same time even in states Bush won with larger urban centers I don’t think Bush won big there (unless the stats from places like St. Louis and Detroit are all wrong.

    That 37% had to come from somewhere, probably the South. More importantly, non-rural areas include suburban areas. So if say for example metropolitan Atlanta voted for Bush, that’s not the result of Atlanta city-that’s the hihg-growth very conservative Atlanta suburbs (including Cobb County-home of satan himself, i.e. Newt Gingrich.

  4. Nick says:


    I know yoyr not from the same ideological place as me, but here me out.
    I can’t help but notice that middle and lower-middle income quintile (roughly 15k to 50K income) usually vote Democrat (outside of very red states like Utah and Wyoming). In the South middle class southerners and a good smattering of working class voters are almost as Republican as wealthy southerners.

    So exactly why do a lot of good old boys never meanin no harm vote for the Boss Hogg party? (By the way, I loved the show in 1979-85, didn’t think much of the 2005 movie. What did you think?

  5. Nick says:


    I agree that Ike had a hold on Americans voters that most Republicans didn’t have-JFK wouldn’t have won in 1960 if the GOP had been as popular as Eisenhower. That said, most of the southern states that did vote for Eisenhower have continued to vote Republican long after Ike left office (1964 notwithstanding).

    Except for Texas, all southern pro-Ike states in 1952 voted for Nixon in 1960 and 1968. Ergo while Ike’s southern votes may very well have been the result of Ike’s popualarity, these states have kept up their GOP voting to the present day even though Ike passed away in 1969.

  6. Darth Malice says:

    Nick,I loved the show,and I thought Boss Hogg rocked!The reason why middle class and poor southerners vote Republican are the moral issues(abortion,gay rights)and pro-military.They watch Hollywood and conclude the rest of the nation is nuts.