A few days ago I had a conversation with a friend about why African Americans usually vote for Democratic candidates given that they initially heavily favored Republicans after gaining the right to vote. “The Al Smith Shift” popped into my mind. I remembered this from a freshman year lecture in one of my political sciences classes at Georgia Tech. That was in 1986-1987…almost 30 years ago (!). Anyway, the professor noted that Alfred Smith was the 1928 Democratic nominee for U.S. President. He lost the election, but some of his ideas were attractive to African American voters, so they cast a large number of votes for him. His policy proposals were later adopted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the New Deal, so African Americans continued to vote for Democrats. Well, at least I think that this is what the professor said. A Google search for “Al Smith Shift” or “Alfred Smith Shift” does not turn up any direct evidence to support my memory. The book Blacks in the New Deal: The Shift from an Electoral Tradition and Its Legacy appears in the list of general results, however, so I’ll have to check that out. If anyone has any information that can help me determine the veracity of my memory please share it!
UPDATE: Professor Garrick Percival writes, “Check out this link which offers some good insights: http://www.blacksandpresidency.com/herberthoover.php. Assuming this is accurate, it seems like Smith’s record on racial issues was something of mixed bag. He made overtures toward black voters and spoke to issues of importance, but he was also really concerned about alienating the white Democratic vote in the south. It looks like he garnered some fairly impressive vote totals in southern majority-black counties but I suspect this doesn’t say a whole lot given the high levels of black disenfranchisement at the time. It doesn’t look like he did all that well among black voters in the northern urban cities.” Thank you, Dr. Percival!