The Democrats and the 'Bubba Vote' Problem

May 10, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN Jr.

The Los Angeles riots crowded out the North Carolina primary, sparing you a lot of reporting on "the Bubba vote" again. There was a lot of it back in March, when most Southern states held primaries.

Bubba is the cultural stereotype of Southern white male voters that so many commentators resort to when discussing Southern politics. You know, pickup truck with a gun rack and a Confederate battle flag tag, beer belly from drinking all night at the honky-tonk, rural roots, racist, blue collar, low income, high school graduate at best. . . .

I have a different reaction to the phrase. I know only two people nicknamed Bubba. One is my mother's brother; the other is my wife's. They couldn't be more different from the stereotype.

Both are professional men with advanced degrees. My uncle (Bubba I for convenience for the rest of this article) just retired as a guidance counselor at a public school in a suburb south of Atlanta. He previously was a basketball coach. My brother-in-law (Bubba II) is a senior partner is medium-sized law firm that represents mostly corporate clients in a suburb north of Atlanta.

Both are good family men. Bubba II has been married to the same woman for 32 years and provided two children with a loving home environment and a good education. Bubba I provided his three children the same. He's been married 50 years. I remember his wedding well. It was the first time I had ever seen a Marine dress uniform.

Which brings me to another point. Bubba I and Bubba II are patriots. Bubba I served in the Pacific in World War II. Bubba II was an airborne officer in the late 1950s and remained in the Army Reserve till retirement age.

Both are active in their communities: Bubba I in a civic club, Bubba II as an officer in his country club.

We don't talk race or politics a lot in my family, but I am not aware of either advocating white supremacist notions or supporting political candidates of that stripe. I am pretty sure both these Bubbas vote Republican in presidential elections.

And that, as Phil Harris used to sing, is what the Republican Party likes about the South. The GOP has a virtual lock on the Southern white male vote.

In their new book, "The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected," Earl Black and Merle Black write, "According to our estimates, the median white Republican vote in the 1972-1988 presidential elections was 67 percent." It would be higher than that if you exclude the 1976 and 1980 elections, when the Democratic nominee was Jimmy Carter of Georgia.

Using the same data the Blacks used and the same analysis technique, I calculate that the median white Democratic vote in Georgia from 1964 through 1988, excluding 1976 and 1980, was approximately 20 percent. For white men only, I'd put it at about 15-16 percent.

You would expect Bubba II to vote Republican. The country club set in every region generally votes Republican. But Bubba I is a different story. Men with his social and economic characteristics are more likely to vote Democratic in most regions. So did Bubba I and most Southerners like him 30 years ago. In 1960, just under half of white Georgians voted for John F. Kennedy.

I wouldn't be too surprised if Bubba II did. I'm pretty sure Bubba I did. Those would be fair guesses about their types if not about them specifically. My grandfather, Bubba I's father, was one of the first beneficiaries of Social Security. He adored Franklin D. Roosevelt. I'm sure he influenced his son in that direction. My father-in-law, Bubba II's father, had worked for the state and was active in Democratic Party circles. People like him knew it was important to play the game. Even the most conservative of them usually "held their noses and voted Democratic," as a Southern senator once explained his vote in a presidential election.

So white Southerners have gone from voting Democratic by about 40-plus percent to only about 20 percent since 1960.

From about 40 percent to about 20 percent is quite a change. But even those numbers do not tell the whole story.

My grandfather was typical in his FDR worship. In the four presidential elections in which FDR was a candidate, he got 91.6 percent of the vote in Georgia, 87.1 percent, 84.7 percent and 81.7 percent. Those percentages are of the total state vote. Few blacks voted then, and many who did voted Republican in those days. It is possible that the median white vote for FDR in those four elections was close to 90 percent.

So in the 1930s and 1940s, most of the Bubba IIs of Georgia and the South voted contrary to the way their social and economic peers in other regions did. Now in the 1980s and 1990s, most of the Bubba Is are voting contrary to their peers elsewhere.

Why?

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