The Great Realignment: The 1928 Presidential Election, Part 2

This is the second part of two posts analyzing in more detail the 1928 presidential election.

The Great Realignment

The previous post noted that:

In 1928 the Democratic Party nominated Governor Al Smith of New York. Mr. Smith was nominated as a Catholic Irish-American New Yorker  who directly represented Democratic-voting white ethnics. Mr. Smith’s  Catholicism, however, constituted an affront to Democratic-voting white  Southerners, who at the time were the most important part of the party’s  base.

The 1928 presidential election thus saw a mass movement of white  Southerners away from the Democrats, corresponding with a mass movement  of white ethnics towards the Democrats. This was the beginning of the  great realignment of the South to the Republican Party and the Northeast  to the Democratic Party.

This change can be illustrated with a map detailing the state-by-state shift from the 1924 presidential election to the 1928 presidential election:


There are a number of things that stand out with this map.

More below.

The first, as has been previously noted, is the degree to which the shift replicates the current electoral map.

This is not all, however. Two other things are very, very out-of-whack here. To get a hint at what these are, it is useful to compare the 1924 to 1928 state-by-state voting shift to that of different elections.

One example is the change from 2004 to 2008.

In 2008 President Barack Obama improved by 9.7% from the performance of the previous Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry. In 1928 Governor Al Smith improved by 7.8% from the performance of Democratic candidate John Davis. The shift from 1924 to 1928 is therefore roughly comparable to the shift from 2004 to 2008.

Here is a map of that shift:


Although both Democratic candidates improved by roughly the same percentage from the previous election, where and how they improved look completely different.

In 2008, Mr. Obama generally improved everywhere. In only five states does he do worse than Mr. Kerry. This is the famous Appalachian corridor with which Mr. Obama was so weak.

Moreover, the degree of movement is generally modest. Only two states – Hawaii and Indiana – have more than a 20-point shift from how they voted in 2004. No state shifts more than 40 points (although Hawaii certainly comes close, going from a 8.7% Democratic margin to a 45.3% Democratic margin).

These two patterns: uniform and moderate movement (i.e. when a candidate does better in the popular vote, said candidate does better in almost every state, and states generally do not have wild swings from how they voted from the previous election) are not just confined to 2008. Here is the shift from 2000 to 2004, when President George W. Bush improved by 2.9% from his performance four years earlier:


One again we see that the national shift right brought most of the states with them, and that only three states shifted more than 10% from 2000.

Let’s take another look at 1928 to finish:


Here neither pattern is present. In 1928, the country moved 7.8% more Democratic from 1924. Despite this, Democratic candidate Al Smith did worse in 23 out of 48 states. Three states – Florida, Georgia, and Texas – voted more than 40% more Republican than they did in the previous election. In Texas, Republicans went from 19.8% of the vote in 1924 to 51.8% of the vote in 1928. Fifteen states voted more than 10% more Republican than they did in 1924.

In comparison, in 2008 only one state – Arkansas – voted more than 10% more Republican than it did in 2004 (and it did so by the barest of margins: 10.1%). This was despite Mr. Obama’s improvement from 2004 being roughly equivalent to Mr. Smith’s improvement from 1924.

A lot of interest has gone into Mr. Obama’s weakness in Appalachia. But Mr. Smith’s Southern problem in 1928 (i.e. the fact that he was a Catholic) makes Mr. Obama’s Appalachian problem look puny.

If Mr. Smith improved by 7.8% from the performance of his Democratic predecessor with so much weakness in the South, the shift in the states that voted more Democratic must have been huge. And indeed, the New Yorker gained more than 20-point shifts in nine states. In Massachusetts, Democrats went from 24.9% of the vote in 1924 to 50.2% in 1928.

All in all, the 1928 presidential election was the scene of some enormous movement on a state-by-state basis. In 2008 only two states shifted more than 20 points from 2004, as Mr. Obama did 9.7% better than Mr. Kerry. In 1928, on the other hand, sixteen states shifted more than 20 points from 1928, as Mr. Smith did 7.8% better than the previous Democratic candidate.

This is what a realigning election looks like – extreme movement on from one state to the next, enormous differences by region, and a powerful correlation between which states shift Democratic and which states are voting Democratic almost a century later.

P.S. For those interested, here is a table of the state-by-state voting shift from the 1924 presidential election to the 1928 presidential election:

State 1928 Republican   Margin 1924 Republican   Margin Change
Alabama -2.84% 40.80% 37.96%
Arizona 15.34% 5.79% 9.55%
Arkansas -20.96% -31.93% 10.97%
California 30.50% 48.97% -18.47%
Colorado 30.78% 35.04% -4.26%
Connecticut 8.06% 34.01% -25.95%
Delaware 30.42% 20.90% 9.52%
Florida 16.72% -28.82% 45.54%
Georgia -13.19% -55.77% 42.58%
Idaho 29.30% 30.76% -1.46%
Illinois 14.65% 35.48% -20.83%
Indiana 20.09% 16.56% 3.53%
Iowa 24.20% 38.39% -14.19%
Kansas 44.96% 37.94% 7.02%
Kentucky 18.82% 2.95% 15.87%
Louisiana -52.58% -56.21% 3.63%
Maine 37.66% 50.20% -12.54%
Maryland 14.74% 4.00% 10.74%
Massachusetts -1.09% 37.40% -38.49%
Michigan 41.44% 62.24% -20.80%
Minnesota 16.94% 44.38% -27.44%
Mississippi -64.20% -81.79% 17.59%
Missouri 11.43% 5.79% 5.64%
Montana 17.89% 23.12% -5.23%
Nebraska 27.01% 17.51% 9.50%
Nevada 13.07% 19.81% -6.74%
New Hampshire 17.63% 25.11% -7.48%
New Jersey 19.97% 34.76% -14.79%
New Mexico 18.16% 5.50% 12.66%
New York 2.35% 26.63% -24.28%
North Carolina 9.87% -19.16% 29.03%
North Dakota 10.34% 40.72% -30.38%
Ohio 30.43% 34.63% -4.20%
Oklahoma 28.28% -5.59% 33.87%
Oregon 30.04% 26.83% 3.21%
Pennsylvania 31.35% 46.26% -14.91%
Rhode Island -0.61% 23.17% -23.78%
South Carolina -82.85% -94.35% 11.50%
South Dakota 20.98% 36.34% -15.36%
Tennessee 7.72% -9.21% 16.93%
Texas 3.67% -53.92% 57.59%
Utah 7.72% 19.32% -11.60%
Vermont 34.00% 62.55% -28.55%
Virginia 8.01% -29.69% 37.70%
Washington 35.75% 42.08% -6.33%
West Virginia 17.39% 5.38% 12.01%
Wisconsin 9.24% 28.96% -19.72%
Wyoming 28.31% 36.28% -7.97%
Total 25.22% 17.42% -7.80%


A Regional Party Limited to the South: The Democrats in the 1920s, Part 3

This is the last part of three posts analyzing the Democratic Party’s  struggles  during the 1920s, when it lost three consecutive presidential  elections  by landslide margins. This will focus upon the 1928  presidential election, when the  Democratic Party began to change into what it is today.

The 1928 Presidential Election

The 1928 presidential election marked the beginning of a great shift in American politics. It was when the Democratic Party started changing from a minority and fundamentally conservative organization into the party that would nominate Senator Barack Obama for president.

Part 3

More below.

All this was quite far off in 1928, however. All Democrats knew was that they had just lost two landslide elections. In 1920 and 1924, the Democratic Party had won the votes of white Southerners – and nobody else. Their last candidate had won barely more than one-fourth of the vote.

In 1928 the Democratic Party tried a different strategy. It nominated Governor Al Smith of New York, the candidate of its white ethnic constituency. In the 1920 and 1924 these voters had sat out the first election, and then voted for a third-party candidate. Mr. Smith was a Tammany Hall-bred politician and a life-long New Yorker who identified as an Irish-American.

There was just one problem: Mr. Smith was not a Christian. Rather, he was a Roman Catholic who many feared would take orders from the Pope himself.

White ethnics had abandoned the Democratic Party in the two previous presidential elections. This time it was the turn of white Southerners, who voted Republican in unprecedented numbers:

Part 2

White Southerners may have been willing to vote for a yellow dog for  president, but many drew the line at voting for a Catholic (especially  one who wanted to condemn the Klu Klux Klan and supported anti-lynching  legislation).

It was Republican candidate Herbert Hoover who benefited from this. Riding a strong economy and a wave of personal popularity, Mr. Hoover defeated Mr. Smith by 17.2% – a landslide on par with President Ronald Reagan’s pummeling of Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, or Mr. Hoover’s own defeat four years later.

The Transformation of the Democratic Party

The 1928 presidential election was the first time white Southerners had abandoned the Democratic Party since the Civil War, and it signaled the beginning of a sea change in American politics.

Amidst all the Republican celebration of a third massive Republican landslide, there was one disquieting sign: Democrats won more than 50% of the vote in Massachusetts, for the first time in history. Irish-American support also gained Mr. Smith more than 50% in Rhode Island (for the first time since 1852). In New York Democrats lost by less than three percent.

Thus, while white Southerners voted more Republican than ever before in the history of the Republican Party, white ethnics in the Northeast and Midwest supported their fellow Catholic in unprecedented numbers. In 1928, both Mississippi and Massachusetts voted Democratic, as the party lost by a landslide.

In the ensuing decades, the Democratic Party’s power base would shift in a slow but sure tide towards Massachusetts and away from Mississippi. 1928 was the first time Democrats relinquished much of the White Southerner vote, but it would not be the last. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped the trend for a generation, but after him it would resume. Democrats would become the party of Massachusetts, not the party of Mississippi.

This trend started in 1928. A comparison of the 1924 and 1928 presidential elections is revealing. In 1924, Democrats still held a lock on the South, while Republicans held a lock everywhere else:

Part 2

In 1928 this began changing. Democratic strength began to move away from the South, and towards the Northeast and Midwest:

Part 3

This change continues to this very day.


In 1928, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Democrats were consigned to permanent minority status. They had just lost three presidential landslide elections in a row. They had not controlled a House of Congress for more than a decade.

Indeed, aside from 1912 (when two Republicans split the vote), the Democratic Party had won exactly one presidential election since 1892. They had won more than 50% of the vote just one time since the Civil War; Republicans had done so nine times during the same period.

In 1928, the Democratic Party really did seem trapped as a regional-based party which had great trouble competing outside the South. Again and again, Democratic candidates were pummeled outside the former Confederacy. When they had attempted to reach out to white ethnics in 1928, White Southerners had refused to go along.

It was a terrible Catch-22, a problem Democrats had failed to surmount for almost two generations. In the end, it would take a Great Depression for them to do so.