How 1980 Broke the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party has never recovered the dominance it had during the period from the New Deal to Reagan.

One must only look at the maps of every presidential election in the 20th century to observe that Democrats had won the South in every election going back to the post-Reconstruction era. That hold cracked in 1968 as a result of the party’s support for civil rights, when five southern states supported white supremacist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who ran as an independent.

The entire South went Republican in 1972 for the first time ever in American history, supporting Richard Nixon over Democrat George McGovern.

And so when Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election, it was a resurrection of the key region that had helped Democrats compete in national elections for a century. He won the entire South with the exception of Virginia.

Carter, remember, was trying to take the Democrats in a more moderate direction in response to the country’s more conservative mood. The Democrats in 84 and 88 rejected that approach and nominated candidates with more left-leaning platforms.

And so Carter’s loss was not only the fracturing of their coalition of southern, midwestern and northeastern states, it also sent the party in a more liberal direction at a time it likely needed to move to the center. And it deprived the party of a president who might have at least held off their reckoning with the south a bit longer.

The 1980 election was also more than the loss of the presidency. The blow to the Democrats was epochal.

Read the full piece at my Medium page here.

Jon Ward