In seven of the nine Presidential elections that took place in the United States from 1932 through 1964 a majority of white voters in the country voted for the Democratic nominee for President. However, not once in the twelve President elections since 1964 has a majority of white voters voted for the Democratic nominee for President. What has happened to cause this rather dramatic and consistent shift among white voters?
There is no single simple answer. It's a complex confluence of many different causes and issues. Below is simply a list, in my opinion, of some of the causes of white flight from the Democratic party at the Presidential level.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act -- Lyndon Johnson reportedly said to Bill Moyers after Johnson signed the 1964 Civil rights act, "We have last the South for a generation." Johnson actually underestimated the length of time that the Democrats would lose the South as it's been almost 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was signed and with very few exceptions Democratic Presidential nominees have not won states in the South (I'm not considering Florida to be part of the original South). Out of the 132 opportunities to win states in the South between 1968 and 2012 Democratic nominees have won only 24 times, and 10 of those wins occurred during a single election, the post-Watergate backlash election of 1976 when Georgia native Jimmy Carter was on the Democratic ticket.
The 1965 Immigration Law -- Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration Law which changed the immigration policy toward non-Europeans. In 1970 Europeans accounted for almost 60% of the foreign born population but by 2000 Europeans accounted for only 15% of the foreign born population. Many white xenophobes blame the Democrats for what they see as the browning of America.
Affimative Action -- White backlash to affirmation action (the 1978 Bakke case held that racial quotas were unconstitutional) which was started started by executive orders of the Kennedy (10925) and Johnson (11246 and 11375) administrations.
The Perceived Breakdown of "Law and Order" --
The term "Law and Order" was used as coded racism by the right-wing as they used it to dissolve a liberal consensus about crime that involved federal court decisions and a pushback against illegal drugs and violent gang activity. Many whites turned against the Democratic party, blaming it for being soft on crime and rioters, including the Watts riots in 1965 and the Newark and Detroit riots in 1967.
The Warren Court -- many "law abiding" citizens blamed the "activist" Warren Court and Democrats for its "liberal" decisions, such as Escobedo vs. Illinois and Miranda vs. Arizona, which they believed handcuffed law enforcement and allowed criminals to evade justice.
Student Demonstrations -- In the Fall of 1964 the Free Speech Movement erupted on the Berkeley campus of the Univeristy of California, and many, including Ronald Reagan, blamed the "permissive, liberal" establishment, including Pat Brown, who was California governor, Clark Kerr, who was President of the University of California, and Edward Strong, who was chancellor at Berkeley, all of whom were Democrats. The FSM demonstrations were just the beginning, as later in the decade the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations become center stage.
1968 Democratic National Convention --
There was the chaos and disorder at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago which was seen by millions of Americans on television and reinforced the view that the Democrats could not maintain order in their own party, much less in the streets of America.
General Distrust of Goverment --
Democrats have tended to be seen as the pro-government party and the Republicans have been the anti-government party and there has been, in general, a mistrust of government including:
The Warren Commission -- 25 years after the JFK assassination a majority of the American public believed (rightly or wrongly) that JFK was assassinated as part of a conspiracy and not by a lone assassin as the Warren Commission concluded.
The Vietnam War -- The American public was constantly told by government officials that there was light at the end of the Tunnel, then early in 1968 the Tet Offensive occurred and it became obvious that the light at the end of the tunnel was the headlight of an oncoming train. Then, of course, there was Nixon's non-existant secret plan to end the war.
Watergate -- If people at the highest levels of the Federal government are corrupt, then government in general must be corrupt by definiation.
Democrats seen as weak on Defense/Foreign Policy --
Vietnam War-- One reason the Vietnam War divided and discredited Democrats and splintered the liberal consensus was because it was a Democratic adminstration that effectively started that war. Opposition to the war didn’t unify the party, it divided it. Nixon won the 1968 election, in part, because Humphrey was associated with the war, and couldn’t split with Johnson, and Nixon promised a non-existant secret plan to end the war. The national security gap for Democrats first appeared in polls in 1967, because Johnson was held responsible for the war itself, not because Democrats were associated intially with antiwar activists. But the anti-war demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention permantly linked anti-war protesters to the Democratic party.
Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion -- After tne 1972 Massachusetts Democratic primary, long before Thomas Eagleton was chosen as George McGovern's running mate, Thomas Eagleton told reporter Robert Novak "The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot," Once "middle America—Catholic middle America, in particular" — once they find out, "he’s dead." Somewhere along the way the "pot" was dropped and the alliterative acid was substituted. The Acid, Amnesy, and Abortion label stuck to Democratic party for many years afterwards. In reality, of course, in 1972 McGovern was not for the legalization of marijuana, much less acid, as his daughter was an addict, and on abortion McGovern was to the Right of Roe, as he believed that abortion was better left to the states.
Iranian Hostage Crisis -- Throughout 1980 in the United States, constant media coverage -- yellow ribbons, footage of chanting Iranian mobs, even a whole new television news program, ABC's Nightline (orignally titled American Held Hostage) -- provided a dispiriting backdrop to the presidential election season. Because people felt that Jimmy Carter had not been tough enough in foreign policy, this symbolized for them that some bunch of students could seize American diplomatic officials and hold them prisoner and thumb their nose at the United States. This associated Carter and the Democrats with American impotence the in world.
Of course, this list is incomplete as these are just some of the major reasons that Democrats at the Presidential level no longer receive a majority of the white vote. The reasons are quite numerous and very complex and can't be adequately addressed in detail in a single diary.