Black Voices

Obama's White Voters Problem And The Civil Rights Act Of 1964

In the year after the bill that would become the Civil Rights Act was introduced into Congress, the president who stumped for it would be killed, his successor would face serious pushback from within his own party and a cadre of southern senators would spend more than seven weeks filibustering it.

But on July 2, 1964 — 48 years ago today — President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law in the East Room of the White House. The Civil Rights Act formally made it illegal to discriminate in public institutions, employment, union membership and federally funded programs.

"My fellow citizens, we have come to a time of testing," Johnson said into the television cameras. "We must not fail. Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this nation by the just and wise God who is the father of us all.''

At the signing ceremony, Johnson was applauded by lawmakers and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, whose activism played a major role in shifting public support for the measure.

''From the standpoint of the politicians, we were looking at it as a great boon," Matt Reese, a political adviser to President Johnson and President John F. Kennedy, told The New York Times on the 25th anniversary of its passage in 1989. "The period of the Kennedys and the new presidency of Lyndon Johnson quite convinced Democratic politicians that the blacks were solidly for the Democrats. We had great hopes of retaining the white southern Democrats and getting the blacks registered in great numbers.''

Behind closed doors, however, Johnson was pessimistic about the electoral fallout of the law’s passage. "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come," he told Bill Moyers, his speechwriter.

Although Johnson would win the presidency in a landslide that November -- bolstered by 94 percent of the black vote, a record that would hold until President Barack Obama's win in 2008 -- his concerns about the South proved justified.

The signing of the Civil Rights Act was a major moment in the realignment of America's two major political parties. White voters in the solidly Democratic South had been defecting to the Republican Party for decades, since the New Deal. But the tide picked up during the 1960s. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1964, and Ronald Reagan, the popular Republican governor from California, would make their opposition to the law a central part of their political platforms. As black voters flocked into the Democratic fold after the act's signing, white voters -- particularly in the South -- bolted. The 1964 election was the last time a Democratic candidate for president would win more than half of the nation’s white vote.

Richard Nixon would use the racial resentments of southern whites to help propel himself to the White House. The South has been solidly Republican in every election since. Only two Democratic candidates -- Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both governors from the South -- have nabbed any electoral votes from the region since.

"It's similar to white physical flight, but what we have here with white political flight," said Rick Jones, a political scientist at the University of Louisville.

It's an electoral problem that is especially pronounced for Obama. No president has won the White House with a smaller sliver of the white vote. The president's approval among white voters has dropped below 40 percent, and he trails Mitt Romney with that group by 13 percentage points.

(Even young white voters, a group that largely supported the president in 2008, have proven a tough sell. From 2008 to 2011, about 18 percent of young white voters shifted from Democrat to Republican, according to Pew.)

“President Obama does not currently have enough white support to win re-election, even if he retains his minority base from 2008,” wrote David Paul Kuhn at Real Clear Politics. Obama won about 43 percent of the white vote in 2008, but needs about 38 percent of the white vote to win this fall, according to one pollster. (Obama pulled in 80 percent of the non-white vote in 2008.)

On the other side of the ledger, though, are Mitt Romney’s poor poll numbers among white voters. Romney needs to be at about 60 percent of white voters to win in November, and he’s currently winning just over half.