Thursday, March 3, 2016

On a Revisionist History of the 1988 Southern Super Tuesday

This overly retweeted tweet made its way into the FHQ Twitter feed yesterday, and it really strikes me as #wrong.
This is a pretty blatant revision of this history of how the 1988 Southern Super Tuesday came to be.

The idea of shifting some or all of the southern states to the front of the Democratic Party window -- the period in which the now-so-called carve-out states -- was something that was making the rounds in political circles across the South as early as the early 1970s. Jimmy Carter discussed the idea of a southern regional primary in the infancy of his initial presidential nomination bid just after he completed his stint as Georgia governor. That is not only very far into the post-reform era. And it also pre-dates any Jesse Jackson run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Carter was also tangentially involved in the positioning of the Florida presidential primary for the 1976 cycle. Legislators in the Sunshine state were going to move the Florida primary to a later date, but the Carter team worked their connections in Florida -- connections forged in his time as governor of Georgia -- to request that the primary be kept in March. That primary was a de facto southern elimination round as Carter's win there over George Wallace virtually ended Wallace's chances and further propelled Carter's odds of winning the nomination. It goes without saying that this, too, was before Jesse Jackson's run in 1984.

Facing a prospective challenge from Ted Kennedy in 1980, the Carter White House also made similar entreaties with legislators in both Alabama and Georgia to move their primaries to coincide with the Florida primary in 1980. That was viewed by the Carter campaign as an early counterweight to perceived potential victories by Kennedy in earlier New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The picture that emerges is more of an organic build toward a southern regional primary, and, again, this was before Jesse Jackson's run.

The southern regional primary idea was still around in the lead up to 1984. Several southern states shifted to early caucuses that cycle and began to make the front end of the calendar even more southern-flavored. Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina Democrats all shifted their contests into March, joining Alabama, Florida and Georgia on the 1984 primary calendar. The decisions in those states also pre-dated the time period when it was clear that Jesse Jackson was going to run for the Democratic nomination that cycle.

Before the timeline even gets to 1985 when the decisions on 1988 presidential primary dates started coming out of southern state legislatures, then, there is already ample evidence that the movement toward a southern regional primary was in the works. It had happened already; organically and before Jackson.

But this is also only the tip of the iceberg for what is missed in Jilani's revisionist -- or perhaps context-less -- account of the 1988 calendar.

The notion that southern state legislators "frontloaded red states" borders on preposterous. First, the red state/blue state construct dates most specifically to the 2000 election cycle; three cycles after 1988. Southern legislators, who were overwhelmingly Democratic at the time, moved those contests for 1988 attempting to, in the aggregate, influence the nomination. Dating back to the early 1970s, the idea was that the South would speak with one voice behind a more moderate candidate who would, in their way of thinking, make those southern states blue in the fall general election campaign. With Jimmy Carter's 1976 run as the example, the idea was to win some southern states in the fall. To do that they needed a southern or more moderate/conservative candidate. Those were the dominoes in all of this. And that way of thinking survived to and through both of Bill Clinton's runs for the White House. During a period in which Democrats struggled to win the White House, the only success the party had in winning was in nominating a southerner who could peel off some southern states in the general election.

Yes, the Democratic Leadership Council was involved on the periphery of the effort in the lead up to 1988, but Jilani is assigning to them, and the state governments that made the decisions to shift primaries on the calendar, a level of sophistication that just did not exist at the time. His thesis is without context. If they were sophisticated enough to attempt to counter Jackson, then surely they would have realized after Jackson's success with African American voters in 1984 that they -- southern decision makers -- were actually setting Jackson up for success in the Deep South where African American voters comprised a significant portion of the Democratic primary electorate.

That level of sophistication did not exist. Southern political actors were surprised by the results in the 1988 primaries and in many states opted to drop out of the calendar coalition for 1992. Jesse Jackson may have been on the minds of those making the decisions on primary dates for 1988 in 1985-87, but he was not the motivation for moving those states up. The movement was afoot before Jackson and actually benefited him in 1988. Those states just were not "red" in the eyes of those making those decisions. The hope was that they would turn at least some of those states "blue" in the fall.

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