Angry White Men
R.W. Johnson on Obama’s electoral arithmetic
Running for Congress in Louisiana in 1961, Joe Waggonner, a conservative Democrat and militant segregationist, faced a tough challenge from the Republican candidate, a wealthy oilman called Charlton Lyons. Waggonner came up with a novel – and winning – argument: he warned that electing Lyons would help bring about a competitive two-party system in which a contest could easily be tipped one way or the other by the black vote. This, Waggonner pointed out, was how Jack Kennedy got elected president in 1960, and that sort of thing would never do in Louisiana.
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[*] How Barack Obama Won: A State by State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election by Chuck Todd, Sheldon Gawiser and Ana Maria Arumi (Vintage, 258 pp., £8.50, January 2009, 978 0 307 47366 0).
[†] The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House edited by Larry Sabato (Longman, 304 pp., £16.99, April 2009, 978 0 205 65044 6).
Vol. 33 No. 22 · 17 November 2011
R.W. Johnson writes that Franklin Roosevelt ‘never relied on Republicans’ (LRB, 20 October). This may have been true in Congress, where Democrats had huge majorities. But his administrative appointments showed bold bipartisanship. Three key men in his first 1933 cabinet – Harold Ickes at Interior, Henry Wallace at Agriculture and William Woodin at the Treasury – were nominally progressive Republicans, though Wallace and Ickes had voted for Al Smith in 1928 and Ickes had voted Republican in only one presidential election in the previous 25 years. Yet Ickes stayed in the cabinet until 1946 and Wallace was FDR’s vice president from 1941 to 1945.
In June 1940, following Hitler’s sweeping victories in Europe, FDR startled the nation and wrong-footed Republicans by appointing Henry Stimson secretary of war and Frank Knox secretary of the navy. Both men had taken tougher positions on the war than FDR, and Knox had even advocated that the US navy convoy munitions to Britain.
After 1938 FDR repeatedly tried to purge his own party of conservative, racist Dixiecrats and launch a new liberal Democratic Party which would have included Ickes, Wallace, the progressive Republican mayor of New York City Fiorello La Guardia and even Wendell Wilkie, his Republican opponent in the 1940 presidential election. The conservative Dixiecrat-Republican coalition which controlled Congress in that period scotched the strategy: had it succeeded the consequences for US politics in the postwar period would have been intriguing.
Vol. 34 No. 3 · 9 February 2012
In his otherwise splendid discussion of the electoral mathematics of the upcoming American presidential election, R.W. Johnson makes a few mistakes (LRB, 20 October 2011). First, the presidential election in 1948 was not decided by the fact that the ‘black vote had rallied strongly to Truman’. None of the states that Johnson refers to had by any definition ‘large black electorates’ at that time. It was only after the massive black migration north that began during the Second World War was completed that the states that Johnson mentions had sizeable black electorates. Second, it was electoral tampering of a semi-criminal sort in the states of Texas and Illinois, rather than the black vote, which enabled Kennedy to beat Nixon in 1960; that, and the fact that Nixon’s share of the Southern white vote and the Catholic vote fell in 1960, which ensured that the Democratic candidate won the election. The importance of the latter is reflected in the fact that Kennedy won 80 per cent of a bloc which at the time constituted approximately 20 per cent of the electorate.
Vol. 34 No. 4 · 23 February 2012
Charles Coutinho challenges what I say about the importance of the black vote to Truman’s victory in 1948 and JFK’s in 1960 (Letters, 9 February). He is right, of course, that black voters were nothing like as numerous in 1948 as they were later but I would still say their vote was decisive. The 1948 election, which Truman won by 303 electoral college votes to 189, turned on just three states: Ohio (where Truman’s winning margin was 0.24 per cent), California (0.44 per cent) and Illinois (0.84 per cent). Ohio and California each had 25 electoral college votes and Illinois had 28, so if Dewey had won all three he would have won overall by 267 to 225. Indeed, although Dewey was widely mocked for waiting through the night before admitting defeat, he did so because of the extreme closeness of the result in these three key states. Contemporary observers agreed that Truman’s stance on civil rights won him a large majority of black votes, and there were enough black voters in those three states to turn the result.
Coutinho says, quite rightly, that there was a good deal of vote tampering in 1960 in Illinois and Texas, but there is no doubt that the 68 per cent of the black vote that went to JFK won an election which was settled by just 0.1 per cent of the popular vote. He is right that Nixon won less of the Catholic vote than Eisenhower had – but this was more than compensated for by his larger than average share of the Protestant vote. Overall, Kennedy’s Catholicism very nearly lost him the election.