Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000

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Racial politics has permeated American presidential campaigns for more than half a century. From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, presidents-to-be and their adversaries have dealt with the problems and the opportunities presented by America’s bitter racial divide. Some chose to embrace racial progress, others to play to the white backlash, and still others attempted to do both, often with surprising success.

Jeremy D. Mayer has studied every...
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Overview

Racial politics has permeated American presidential campaigns for more than half a century. From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, presidents-to-be and their adversaries have dealt with the problems and the opportunities presented by America’s bitter racial divide. Some chose to embrace racial progress, others to play to the white backlash, and still others attempted to do both, often with surprising success.

Jeremy D. Mayer has studied every presidential race from JFK’s campaign in 1960 to George W. Bush’s in 2000 and the crucial difference the black vote has made in each election.

Mayer discusses in detail:
• The 1960 election, where John F. Kennedy brilliantly straddled the civil rights issue. In an effort to satisfy white southerners, he spoke appeasing words to segregated white audiences, and to attract black voters, he called Coretta Scott King while her husband was imprisoned.
• The 1976 primary race between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford--the last time the black vote mattered for Republicans. Since then, the Republican path to the presidency has been almost entirely white, allowing Republicans to continue rightward on race without costs. Every Republican victory in the modern era has been a product of the incorrigibly white Republican coalition, a coalition nurtured even today by Bush’s ambivalence toward the Confederate flag in 2000.
• "The odd silence of Ronald Reagan,' who was known as a leading opponent of almost every civil rights bill and yet in his 1980 and 1984 campaigns largely avoided the topic. Mayer explains why Reagan’s strategy was so successful.
• the cynical exploitation ofthe fear of racial violence as a means to keep black voters loyal to the Democratic Party in the presidential elections of 1980, 1996, and 2000. Mayer shows how both parties have learned to play the race card with vicious effectiveness.

By looking at this all-important aspect of our political life and coming up with new information, Mayer offers fresh insights into one of the most significant factors in our process of determining who governs us.

Author Biography: Jeremy D. Mayer grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and received his undergraduate degree in political science from Brown University in 1990. After two years in Japan, he pursued graduate studies in politics at Oxford and Georgetown, receiving his Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1996. He is a visiting assistant professor of government at Georgetown. Mayer is also the author of the textbook 9-11: The Giant Awakens.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Race and the array of issues surrounding it have been crucial to every presidential election since 1960," Mayer states, an obvious but routinely ignored fact that he documents campaign by campaign. The first campaign he focuses on offers a lucid, shocking reminder of Kennedy's pre-1960 courting of Southern segregationists, and Mayer her sets a standard that subsequent chapters fail to meet. He clearly delineates a pattern: except for 1964, "Democrats won only when they emulated Kennedy's calculated and symbolic outreach to racial conservatives," thus submerging the salience of race, provided Republicans let them. Yet, the ways this pattern played out including primaries and third-party runs and the ways issues changed over time, prevent this simple formula from producing cookie-cutter results. However, Mayer's accomplishment is marred by the increasing superficiality of his analysis as pre-1965 definitions of what constitutes racism become irrelevant, and no substantive discussion of emerging issues ensues. Thus, affirmative action as an issue recurs repeatedly, without any discussion of how it has actually functioned, both as a matter of law and fact. The same is true of busing it's a startling exception when Mayer notes that the 1984 Reagan campaign attack on busing in Charlotte, N.C., backfired because "the community was relatively proud of their record on busing by 1984." His reportage also declines his portrait of Jesse Jackson is as simplistic and distorted as his portrait of JFK is nuanced and complex. Mayer, a political scientist and visiting professor at Georgetown, offers a plausible yet disappointing exploration of an intriguing and accurate premise. Illus. not seen (On sale Aug. 20) Forecast: With its controversial subject matter, this will no doubt get reviews and sales, but readers savvy about race and politics will stick with Kenneth O'Reilly's more substantial Nixon's Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton. (1995) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A Republican campaign policy of "malign neglect" toward African Americans helped elect Republican presidents in every election from 1968 through 1992, with the exception of Carter in 1976, says Mayer (political science, Georgetown Univ.). After Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, no Democrat won a majority of white votes. Mayer skillfully investigates the impact of race on presidential politics, without overemphasizing its importance compared with the economy and international relations. He is especially insightful in showing how Jesse Jackson hindered the hapless campaigns of Democrats Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 and how Bill Clinton was elected to two terms with overwhelming African American support. As African Americans continue to gain more wealth, economic class, not race, will frame policies and issues, Mayer concludes. This excellent overview joins a number of recent investigations that discuss the connection between race and the presidency: DeWayne Wickham's Bill Clinton and Black America, Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights, and Michael Gardner's Harry Truman and Civil Rights. Mayer's is the only book in memory that discusses race and all presidential elections of the last 40 years. Highly recommended for academic and most public libraries. Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Comprehensive, thoughtful account of the role race played in recent American presidential elections. Since 1960, writes Mayer (Government/Georgetown Univ.), race has gained an importance in the national process of choosing a chief executive that it has not held since Reconstruction. The author does an exceptional job of plumbing the elections' content for racial themes and anecdotes. In the close race between Richard Nixon and JFK, for example, Nixon actually had the better record on civil rights; the black vote swung to Kennedy only in the last weeks of the campaign, following a phone call he made to Coretta Scott King after her husband was arrested on a trumped-up traffic charge in Georgia. In 1968, Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey, a liberal strongly associated with civil rights, by proclaiming himself "the law and order candidate," playing to white fears over recent race riots. Mayer discusses the rise to prominence of Jesse Jackson, who played a small role in Walter Mondale's failed bid against an ensconced Ronald Reagan, then returned in 1988 with a far broader coalition of labor, environmental, and other progressive groups to run an impressive primary campaign against Al Gore and Michael Dukakis. Ironically, the political season that brought Jackson's inspiring effort also brought the infamous Willie Horton TV ad, with George Bush and the GOP cynically playing the race card by linking Massachusetts Governor Dukakis to a black felon released on a state furlough program. Mayer also discusses some long-running issues that influenced presidential politics in this era (school busing, affirmative action, welfare reform) and chronicles Reagan's assault on civil-rights safeguards and socialprograms. As other races and ethnic groups come to figure prominently in the American political landscape during the 21st century, black/white issues will diminish as factors in presidential elections, Mayer concludes, but it will be some time before they cease to be important. Slightly arid, but a definitive survey, well written and thorough.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375506253
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/20/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeremy D. Mayer grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and received his undergraduate degree in political science from Brown University in 1990. After two years in Japan, he pursued graduate studies in politics at Oxford and Georgetown, receiving his Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1996. He is a visiting assistant professor of government at Georgetown. Mayer is also the author of the textbook 9-11: The Giant Awakens.
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Read an Excerpt

THE IMPORTANCE OF RACE IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.
W. E. B. DU BOIS, 1903

At the opening of this century, W. E. B. Du Bois boldly predicted that the story of the next hundred years would be the problem of the color line, the tortured divide between black and white. For at least fifty years, Du Bois was wrong; politicians of both parties worked to keep race off the nation's agenda until 1948, and the issue would not dominate our politics until 1963-65. Yet the last decades of this century confirm Du Bois's prescience, for the upheavals and changes that have been wrought in the matter of race have been the dominant narrative of American history in this era. Beneath the surface of American politics, the pressure for change in America's racial caste system had been building and exploded in the tumult of the 1960s. Much of the battle over racial equality revolved around the presidency. Just as slavery and Reconstruction shaped sixty years of presidential politics and policies, so too with the admission of blacks into the sunlight of de jure equality.

Race and the array of issues surrounding it have been crucial to every presidential election since 1960. Every presidential candidate during this period has had to take positions on racial matters, and each campaign's strategic choices were influenced by the racial environment of the election year. Moreover, decisions about racial issues played a role in each party's nomination fights. Race affected the presidential contest in years when race was central to the nation's agenda and in years when race was submerged by a host of other issues.Race always mattered in presidential campaigns, whether the candidate was liberal or conservative, Democratic, Republican, or independent.

CONTINUITY AND CHANGE IN THE RACIAL POLITICS OF CAMPAIGNS, 1960-2000

At the midcentury, the politics of race underwent tremendous change. African Americans, who had tended to vote Republican out of loyalty to the party that brought Emancipation and the brief period of Reconstruction, had shifted to Roosevelt in 1936 in response to his economic populism. FDR maintained their loyalty in each of his subsequent elections, and blacks became a key part of the New Deal presidential coalition that dominated American politics from 1932 to 1968. However, the coalition was inherently unstable, because segregationist southern whites were an even larger component of the Democratic majority. FDR successfully kept race from emerging on the national scene during his presidency, but by 1960, the issue was becoming unavoidable. In 1956 blacks had voted Republican at a higher rate than at any point since 1932, because of Stevenson's studied vagueness on race and Eisenhower's halting moves toward racial equality. Thus, the black vote was up for grabs in 1960, as it has never been at any time since.

On the surface, there is a great deal of stasis to the racial politics that followed 1960. Blacks would vote Democratic by overwhelming margins, outpacing any other ethnic or occupational group in their loyalty to Democrats. Indeed, in most years blacks would vote Democratic at higher levels than all professed Democrats. At the same time, majorities or pluralities of whites voted Republican in ten of the eleven presidential elections from 1960 to 2000, turning Democratic only in the Johnson landslide of 1964. Also, the competitive policy positions of the two parties did not change during this period; in every election after 1960, the Republicans were more racially conservative.

Yet change was also vast and far-reaching. The most obvious and significant change during this period was the growth in black electoral power. In 1960, only a fraction of eligible blacks were registered in the South, the region where the majority of African Americans lived. In the North, blacks voted in great numbers but frequently saw their political leadership co-opted by urban machines. The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) succeeded, after much blood and struggle, at enfranchising blacks almost a century after the Fifteenth Amendment ostensibly gave them the right to vote. The majestic realization of this overdue promise signaled the end of the one-party white South, indirectly helped bring down the last urban machines, and forever altered the electoral landscape. Blacks were no longer passive observers to the political process; they could be defeated, but they could not be easily ignored. The only comparable electoral shift in American history was the 1919 awarding of the franchise to women. However, the full enfranchisement of African Americans was more significant because blacks shared a common economic and ethnic history, a cohesive set of political goals, and a great tendency to cohere as a voting bloc, none of which characterized women in the decades after they won the vote. Because of their unequal distribution around the nation, and their nearly monolithic voting in presidential elections, blacks elected every Democratic president since 1944 except Johnson, just as declines in their turnout helped defeat Hubert Humphrey and others. As important, the introduction of black suffrage radically altered white voting behavior in the South and in parts of the North. As black registration rose, so too did white registration. As blacks voted monolithically Democratic in response to Kennedy's and Johnson's civil rights moves, many whites eventually shifted their allegiance to the GOP in response. In many ways, the American political order is still shaking with the aftershocks of the 1965 electoral earthquake of black enfranchisement.

Racial issues also changed greatly from 1960 to 2000.* (* One of those changes was the increasing ethnic diversity of the country, due to Hispanic and Asian immigration. This book focuses on the black-white divide in presidential politics. From 1960 to 2000, this was the most enduring, and most influential, racial fault line in our political system. While the scope of this study is limited to a particular aspect of racial politics, the others are surely worthy of examination. Some of the implications of our increasing ethnic diversity will be raised in the conclusion.)

The racial debates of 1960 revolved around ending the most egregious examples of Jim Crow segregation in the American South. By 1964, the desegregation of all public accommodations was on the agenda, as well as the looming prospect of full voting rights. In 1968, the focus shifted to the North, as the ghettos burned amid advances in the legal and socioeconomic standing of African Americans. By 1972, no major political figure would endorse segregation, not even George Wallace, who had proclaimed in 1963, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" Yet how to end segregation, as well as what to replace it with, bedeviled political elites, as candidate after candidate responded to the white backlash against busing. Indeed, busing was the pivot for the most radical change in the rhetoric of racial politics. Up until that point, racial liberals typically argued for color blindness, and racial conservatives pined for a government that at least tolerated traditionally color-conscious social structures. With busing and affirmative action, the terms of the debate upended to the point where racial conservatives hijacked the rhetoric of the slain Martin Luther King Jr., and advocated a society that judged individuals on their individual character, not the color of their skins. De jure equality was now the stated goal of racial conservatism. Racial progressives, on the other hand, argued for the benign use of race to eradicate remaining inequalities. In 1960, an all-black dormitory on a majority white campus was an obscene symbol of racial intolerance; nine years later, such a dorm was an emblem of racial progressivism. In 1964, the color-blind language of the Civil Rights Act (CRA) ignited the fervent opposition of millions of segregationists; in the 1990s, racial conservatives in a number of states worked to put that exact language into statute and state constitutions, fiercely opposed by modern racial liberals. Even while the partisan loyalties of blacks and whites did not change much during 1960-2000, racial issues were radically transformed.

As blacks gained voting strength, and the racial agenda shifted, political elites also adapted, sometimes with surprising speed. No one could look at the careers of Richard M. Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, and George C. Wallace, three inveterate presidential hopefuls of the 1960s and 1970s, without grasping how radically and rapidly the terms of the racial debate changed. Nixon, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a leading Republican advocate of civil rights for much of the 1950s, would mastermind the creation of a Republican majority based in part on white backlash. Humphrey, the civil rights radical of 1948 who precipitated the walkout of the Dixiecrats with his fearless endorsement of civil rights in a fiery convention speech, would end his career three decades later wooing Wallace voters by opposing busing. Wallace, whose gubernatorial campaigns of 1962 and 1970 and presidential campaigns of 1964 and 1968 often trafficked in the most heinous racial caricatures, gradually rejected his racist past until he was reelected governor of Alabama with overwhelming black support.

Such evolutions should not astonish us. A political party can be defined as a group of political elites who share an ideological viewpoint or who share an interest in gaining power through electoral triumph. During a campaign, the second definition predominates. When parties compete for the highest office in the land, the first goal is victory. If political scientist David Mayhew is right that there are few selfless angels in Congress who put policy over reelection, there are perhaps even fewer on the presidential campaign trail. However, regardless of personal morality, a campaign strategist must take particular care when considering racial issues. Appealing to racial divisions in our society attracts more opprobrium than any other political tactic. "Playing the race card" is the strongest pejorative in modern political parlance, because of the sense that race should be viewed as a moral issue. That appeals to racial fears or tensions persist despite the prospect of harsh criticism illustrates the effectiveness of these tactics, as well as the enduring nature of America's racial divide.

In studying the effect of racial strategies on presidential campaigns, this book takes a firm position in an ongoing debate within electoral studies. Some have argued that because macroeconomic factors predict presidential election outcomes effectively up to a year before any ballots are cast, presidential campaigns cannot matter, or matter only at the margins. Presidential elections are in fact surprisingly obedient to economic trends, and the best-run campaign may be unable to dislodge an incumbent in boom times or stop a challenger when the economy is sickly. Similarly, war and national security issues may overwhelm campaign strategies, particularly those that focus on domestic issues. Yet there is persuasive evidence that campaigns matter and are worthy of study. For example, George Bush in 1988 did substantially better than economic models predicted, probably because of the cunning campaign his staff ran (or, alternatively, because of the ineptitude of the Dukakis campaign). That Bush's campaign featured a textbook example of a coded appeal to the politics of race (the Willie Horton ads and speeches) suggests that race may be a particularly potent campaign strategy, presenting perhaps the strongest case that campaigns matter. Many have argued that race was central to the collapse of the New Deal Democratic coalition, which dominated U.S. politics from 1936 to 1968. That coalition first crumbled at the presidential level; the presidential campaigns of this era both reflected and affected the gradual collapse of FDR's coalition of northern urban ethnics, unionists, African Americans, and southern whites. Voters are not simply utility maximizers who vote according to their pocketbooks, but vivid human beings who often respond to emotional appeals to group identity and threat. Perhaps no other issue shows the limitations of economic analyses of elections better than racial politics does.

This study begins in 1960, a year in which race was not prominent on the nation's agenda. Yet the 1960 race is far more typical of American elections since FDR than, for example, the 1964 contest. While race is always present, it is rare for civil rights and race to dominate the domestic agenda as they did in 1964, 1968, and 1972. The 1960 race is the crucible in which the pattern of modern racial politics was forged. It was the last year the Republicans attempted to equal the Democratic commitment to civil rights. It was the last time that a racial conservative could imagine that the national Democrats were more sympathetic to his views than the Republicans were. In the election of 1960, the racial tensions building within FDR's coalition were almost exposed; only the extraordinary skill of the Kennedy campaign kept them somewhat submerged. The 1960 race also is a crucial archetype for Democratic victory. Democrats won after 1960 only when they emulated Kennedy's calculated and symbolic outreach to racial conservatives. In the 1960 race, the end of the old electoral order as well as the birth of the new can be seen.

2 A TALE OF TWO STRADDLES

The Subterranean Racial Politics of 1960

There are moments when the politically expedient can be morally wise. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., 1960

A key to the new strategy of the Democratic party is the current behavior of a presidential hopeful, Sen. John Kennedy, Massachusetts. Kennedy has been assiduously wooing Southern votes by making speeches in Georgia and Arkansas. He recently delivered the commencement address at the University of Georgia.... Kennedy joined a runaway faction of self-styled liberals in voting against civil rights on two roll calls in the Senate.... ETHEL PAYNE, BLACK COLUMNIST, JULY 25, 1957

When John Fitzgerald Kennedy defeated Richard Milhous Nixon by the narrowest margin in the postwar era to become the thirty-fifth president, many attributed Kennedy's success to his decision to telephone the wife of imprisoned civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. However, racial politics were crucial to the 1960 contest long before the state of Georgia sentenced the Reverend King to hard labor for a traffic violation. Moreover, the 1960 election revealed in embryo the racial politics that would shape presidential elections for the rest of the century. Although most analysts point to 1964 as the watershed election for black-white politics, the 1960 campaigns were crucial in establishing the patterns of racial strategizing that have characterized the next ten presidential elections. The story of Kennedy's successful navigation of the tricky straits of racial animus and Nixon's maladroit fumbling of the same served as a cautionary tale for all future candidates.

Copyright 2002 by Jeremy D. Mayer
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1 The Importance of Race in Presidential Elections 3
2 A Tale of Two Straddles: The Subterranean Racial Politics of 1960 9
3 LBJ Wins Despite Civil Rights: The Blunt Racial Politics of 1964 40
4 The Bullets, the Ballots, and the Backlash: The Charged Racial Politics of 1968 69
5 Nixon Buses to Victory: The Unnecessary Racial Politics of 1972 96
6 Ford Gives Up on Blacks: The Absent Racial Politics of 1976 123
7 Carter and the Politics of Fear: The Forced Racial Politics of 1980 150
8 The Age of Jackson: The New Racial Politics of 1984 173
9 Furlough from the Truth: The Cynical Racial Politics of 1988 201
10 Forgetting About Race: The Squelched Racial Politics of 1992 229
11 Clinton Resurgent: The Status Quo Racial Politics of 1996 253
12 The Incorrigibly White Republican Party: The Resilient Racial Politics of 2000 273
13 The Future of Race in Presidential Campaigns 291
Notes 311
Selected Bibliography 351
Index 357
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