For the last several weeks, I have been talking about the gradual slide of conservatives away from objective, empirical facts. On a local level, the timeline of that transition coincides with the slide of White County, and the Upper Cumberland in general, from a solid Democratic stronghold to a solid Republican one. I found myself wondering if the two phenomena were connected. When I was a kid - and for most of my life, really -White County was so reliably blue that a Republican holding local office was practically unheard of. Of course, this had been true of the whole South, but it remained true in this county even after it had begun to change in the rest of the South and even Tennessee.
My gut reaction was to think that it was the 2008 election and the fact that a black man won the Democratic nomination. I knew several white people in White County (and around the country) who abandoned the Democratic ticket for the first time in their lives. And, to this day, I still hear of “respectable” members of our community using the n-word to refer to our former president.
But, I also remembered that George W. Bush won White County, in 2004, and that an article in this very newspaper remarked on how historically rare that was. So the change had begun before Obama. I have a theory about it - one that ties in with my previous discussions about facts and science - which I will explain next column. I’m going to use the remainder of this one, though, in laying out the historical facts for you. I looked at the presidential results, in White County, for every election between 1900 and 2020. Allow me to tell you how many times the Republican carried White County in the 20th century (25 elections).
The first time was in 1972: Nixon vs. McGovern. Nixon won 60 percent to 37 percent. (I will give all the results in terms of percentages.) McGovern was shellacked in general; the only state he carried was Massachusetts, and he didn’t even win his home state of South Dakota. It was the first time in history a Republican won every Southern state. Still, it was closer in White County than it was nationwide, where the margin was 68 percent to 30 percent. The only other time was 1988, when Bush Sr. beat Dukakis on the national stage 58 percent to 42 percent. In White County, though, Bush’s victory was razor-thin: 50 percent to 49 percent, or a margin of only 82 votes.
The Democrat won White County in every election from 1900 to 1964 (we’ll discuss 1968 in a minute) by an average of 70 percent to 30 percent. Now, for the whole state of Tennessee during that time, the Republican won five times (Harding 1920, Hoover 1928, Eisenhower 1952 and 1956, Nixon over Kennedy in 1960)… but, in White County, they still lost big in those years.
After the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by the Democrat Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, he famously said his party would lose the South for a generation as a consequence. And, in fact, Republicans started doing better in the South, in part due to Nixon’s “Southern strategy” we discussed last time.
But White County held on. Reagan won Tennessee both times (1980 and 1984) but not White County. Bill Clinton won by large margins both times. Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee to Bush, but he won White County 53 percent to 45 percent. But, in 2004, Bush beat Kerry, 56 percent to 44 percent - the numbers were reversed. Obama lost in 2008 63 percent to 35 percent, 68 percent to 31 percent in 2012. Trump won 78 percent to 19 percent in 2016, 81 percent to 18 percent in 2020.
In 1968, by the way, neither Democrat nor Republican won; the county was carried by the Independent racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who ran on a platform of stopping desegregation.
But what changed in 2004?
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.