The disparity between the number of Alabamians voting in the Republican and Democrat primaries earlier this month was almost as remarkable as the relative yawn such news evoked.
Nearly five voters asked for Republican ballots across the state for every two who requested the Democrat sheet. Five to two, in a state where not too long ago the Democrat nominee was considered a shoo-in for the general election. This is significant because voter participation in primaries is often a good indicator of a party’s health — how it’s connecting to and growing its base — and whether it’ll be able to get-out-the-vote in the general election.
In the primary for governor, for instance, the Republican race drew more than 433,000 voters while the Democrats only had slightly more than 180,000. Compare that to the primaries for governor in 1988, which drew about 940,000 Democrat votes to only slightly more than 29,000 Republicans – a whopping 32-to-1 margin in favor of the Democrats. Admittedly, that was a hotly contested primary for the Democrats, and a sleeper for the Republicans, but it still tells us a great deal about party affiliation. Back then being a Democrat in the American South didn’t require you to agree with the national agenda of the far left. A conservative-minded Alabamian didn’t see anything contradictory about voting for Charlie Graddick in the 1986 Democrat Primary for governor and then two-years later voting for George H.W. Bush for President. Locally, the Democrats were still familiar, and nationally the Republicans seemed more like our type of people.
Then things began to change. The national Democrat Party lurched leftward in the 1990s, and even though some of Alabama’s liberals were pro-gun and anti-abortion, their core ideology of government-centered policies identified them more with the extreme left than the cultural right. Voter turnout for the gubernatorial primaries tightened as more Alabamians felt comfortable identifying themselves as Republicans, and less as Democrats. By 2008, the primary participation scale tipped in favor of the Republicans and it’s been steadily climbing ever since.
Some say it’s just part of the cyclical nature of politics. The pendulum swung left before swinging right, and it’ll swing left once again. Others say that Democrats will be competitive once their leadership stops infighting and starts recruiting better candidates and running smarter campaigns.
I don’t think so. What’s happened in Alabama during the past 25-years is deeper than any cyclical pattern or string of bad campaigns. It’s not an accident to lose a 32-to-1 margin in primary turnout to a party that was once considered inconsequential in all but a handful of counties across the state. It’s a sea change in favor of traditional conservatism.
Many people and organizations can rightly claim at least some credit for the historic ascension of the state’s Republican Party. But it wasn’t largely due to smart campaigns or good candidates – it was that Alabama was already conservative in every discernible way.
By and large, Alabamians have always had a distrust of central government, a desire to live without being bothered by some faraway bureaucracy, whether it’s in Montgomery or Washington, D.C., and a deep respect for the social and religious traditions that built and sustain our culture – the bedrock of conservatism. Alabama didn’t really change at all. No pendulum swung. No cycle turned. The Alabama Republican Party didn’t drastically change anyone’s mind; it just started running candidates that reflected the people’s conservative values.
Former Arizona Senator and conservative icon Barry Goldwater explained something along those lines in his 1998 autobiography, “Goldwater.”
“I don’t believe that either (Ronald) Reagan or I started a conservative revolution because for most of our history the majority of Americans have considered themselves conservatives,” Goldwater wrote. “They have often not voted that way because they were offered no clear choice. I began to tap, and Reagan reached to the bottom of, a deep reservoir that already existed.”
The lopsided turnout earlier this month shows me that the Republican Party continues to tap that reservoir of conservatism in Alabama, attracting new voters and growing its base. Meanwhile, let’s hope it will continue to give conservative voters a clear choice come November.