At RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende takes on the notion that the GOP gained ground in the South only because of racial appeals that started in the mid-1960s:
In 1956, Eisenhower became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a plurality of the vote in the South, 49.8 percent to 48.9 percent. He once again carried the peripheral South, but also took Louisiana with 53 percent of the vote. He won nearly 40 percent of the vote in Alabama. This is all the more jarring when you realize that the Brown v. Board decision was handed down in the interim, that the administration had appointed the chief justice who wrote the decision, and that the administration had opposed the school board.
Nor can we simply write this off to Eisenhower’s celebrity. The GOP was slowly improving its showings at the congressional level as well. It won a special election to a House seat in west Texas in 1950, and began winning urban congressional districts in Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia with regularity beginning in 1952.
Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that something significant was afoot is Richard Nixon’s showing in 1960. He won 46.1 percent of the vote to John F. Kennedy’s 50.5 percent. One can write this off to JFK’s Catholicism, but writing off three elections in a row becomes problematic, especially given the other developments bubbling up at the local level. It’s even more problematic when you consider that JFK had the nation’s most prominent Southerner on the ticket with him.
But the biggest problem with the thesis comes when you consider what had been going on in the interim: Two civil rights bills pushed by the Eisenhower administration had cleared Congress, and the administration was pushing forward with the Brown decision, most famously by sending the 101st Airborne Division to Arkansas to assist with the integration of Little Rock Central High School.
It’s impossible to separate race and economics completely anywhere in the country, perhaps least of all in the South. But the inescapable truth is that the GOP was making its greatest gains in the South while it was also pushing a pro-civil rights agenda nationally. What was really driving the GOP at this time was economic development. As Southern cities continued to develop and sprout suburbs, Southern exceptionalism was eroded; Southern whites simply became wealthy enough to start voting Republican.