JACKSON Party realignment something this writer has been predicting for some years would come to Mississippi is now virtually an accepted fact in this state.
An excellent example that Mississippi is now a two-party state happens next week when state Democrats hold their own “inaugural ball” to honor new Democratic state elected officials. Their “ball” is in contrast with the “Republican” inaugural ball for Gov. Kirk Fordice in his inauguration for a second term.
Gone, of course, are the days when the Democrats had things their own way in Mississippi as far as running the state. It was automatically assumed that the new governor was a Democrat, as well as all state officials. Even though the ones who put them there nominally called themselves Democrats, they had no particular loyalty to party ideology.
One of the basic changes in the state’s political landscape since the rise of the Republicans as a major force is that the Republicans have pushed Mississippi Democrats into choosing sides in their partisanship, based on ideology. For years I observed that Mississippi Democrats were basically conservative obviously on race but also economically and in a distrust of a more centralized federal authority.
So, the shift of a great many white Mississippi Democrats to a new political home on the Republican Party was not a hard transition to make. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to that happening a long time ago was the Civil War phobia against Republicans, which was a virtual religion among white Mississippians.
However, once thousands of them “ate the bitter fruit” of voting Republican for Barry Goldwater in 1964, there evidently was no turning back. Doubtless, however, what lured white Mississippians overwhelmingly (87.2 percent) to vote for Republican Goldwater against Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, was that Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Race has continued to be an undergirding factor in the alienation of a great many Mississippi Democrats who have the perception that blacks have too much say-so in the national Democratic Party. This bias against the national party, has spilled over to state party politics, however to a lesser extent.
While Mississippians could vote for a Repbulican, Kirk Fordice, for governor, they put Democrats into every other state office, and kept a solid Democratic majority in the Legislature. There’s a reason to believe a lot of the Mississippi white electorate equated Fordice with Republicanism, Reagan style, on a national scale. On the other hand, they tended to equate Dick Molpus with President Bill Clinton and the national Democratic Party, no matter that Molpus distanced himself from the national Democratic leadership.
Realignment of political partisanship in the deep South, with emphasis on what has happened in Mississippi, was the subject of a paper by Mississippi State University poliical scientists Stephen Shaffer and Monica Johnson, presented to the American Political Science Association last fall.
Without pinpointing the importance of race in shaping partisan realignment, their paper does refer to findings by some authorities that race has been a salient factor in the South’s political realignment, helping to nullify traditional social and economic class distinctions which historically kept Southerners in the Democratic Party.
Other authorities, they pointed out, argue that what has shaped shifts in party loyalties away from the Democrats is disillusionment with the Welfare State, which the Democrats have been identified with, plus other issues such as gays, feminists and militant blacks.
In any case, polling data cited by Shaffer and Johnson showing changing voter preferences in Mississippi tell the story of how realignment has grown rather dramatically over the past decade or so. When polling by the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State began in the early 1980s, the MSU team said, whites in Mississippi were almost evenly divided in identifying with two parties. That was the case up until the early 1990s, when significant changes in partisanship among whites began to become evident. By 1992, a majority of Mississippi whites for the first time identified themselves as Republicans. Democrats had suffered an 11 percent point drop and the GOP a 6-point gain.
By 1994, Republicans outnumbered Democrats among white Mississippians almost two-to-one. Only if predominantly Democratic black voters are added to the total mix do the Democrats come within hailing distance of the Republicans. Even then, the electorate as of 1994 said it was 54 percent Republican, 38 percent Democratic, and 8 percent Independent.
Over the 12-year period, the Democratically-controlled state Legislature, said the MSU political scientists, largely reflected preferences of the Mississippi public in making key decisions on education reform, highway spending with new taxes, and in the 1992 override of Fordice’s veto of a 1-cent sales tax hike dedicated to education enhancement at all levels.
Overconfident by the trend toward this state becoming Republican, some top GOP leaders had predicted a Republican sweep in November in both elections for state officers and the Legislature, on the order of what happened in the 1994 Congressional elections nationally. It didn’t happen, however.
Party realignment in Mississippi may have been brought to a standstill as the result of the November elections. A prime case in point was that some eight Democrats in the Mississippi House re-elected without opposition had come down to Jackson on election day, planning to switch parties with a GOP takeover of state offices and the Legislature. When that didn’t happen, they didn’t switch.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.