The New Deal coalition was the alignment of interest groups and voting blocs in the United States that supported the New Deal and voted for Democratic presidential candidates from 1932 until the late 1960s. It made the Democratic Party the majority party during that period, losing only to Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1952 and 1956. Franklin D. Roosevelt forged a coalition that included banking and oil industries, the Democratic state party organizations, city machines, labor unions, blue collar workers, minorities (racial, ethnic and religious), farmers, white Southerners, people on relief, and intellectuals. The coalition began to fall apart with the bitter factionalism during the 1968 election, but it remains the model that party activists seek to replicate.
The 1932 presidential election and the 1934 Senate and House of Representatives elections brought about long-term shifts in voting behavior, and became an enduring realignment. Roosevelt set up his New Deal in 1933 and forged a coalition of labor unions, liberals, religious, ethnic and racial minorities (Catholics, Jews and Blacks), Southern whites, poor people and those on relief. The organizational heft was provided by Big City machines, which gained access to millions of relief jobs and billions of dollars in spending projects. These voting blocs together formed a majority of voters and handed the Democratic Party seven victories out of nine presidential elections (1932–1948, 1960, 1964), as well as control of both houses of Congress during all but four years between the years 1932–1980 (Republicans won small majorities in 1946 and 1952). Starting in the 1930s, the term "liberal" was used in US politics to indicate supporters of the coalition, "conservative" its opponents. The coalition was never formally organized, and the constituent members often disagreed. The coalition usually was often divided on foreign policy and racial issues but was more united to support liberal proposals in other domestic policy.
Political scientists have called the resulting new coalition the "Fifth Party System" in contrast to the Fourth Party System of the 1896–1932 era that it replaced. Journalist Sidney Lubell found in his survey of voters after the 1948 presidential election that Democrat Harry Truman, not Republican Thomas E. Dewey, seemed the safer, more conservative candidate to the "new middle class" that had developed over the previous 20 years. He wrote that "to an appreciable part of the electorate, the Democrats had replaced the Republicans as the party of prosperity" and quoted a man who, when asked why he did not vote Republican after moving to the suburbs, answered "I own a nice home, have a new car and am much better off than my parents were. I've been a Democrat all my life. Why should I change?"
Roosevelt had a magnetic appeal to city dwellers, especially the poorer minorities who got recognition, unions, and relief jobs. Taxpayers, small business and the middle class voted for Roosevelt in 1936, but turned sharply against him after the recession of 1937-38 seemed to belie his promises of recovery.
Roosevelt discovered an entirely new use for city machines in his reelection campaigns. Traditionally, local bosses minimized turnout so as to guarantee reliable control of their wards and legislative districts. To carry the electoral college, however, Roosevelt needed massive majorities in the largest cities to overcome the hostility of suburbs and towns. With Postmaster General James A. Farley and WPA administrator Harry Hopkins cutting deals with state and local Democratic officials, Roosevelt used federal discretionary spending, especially the Works Progress Administration (1935–1942) as a national political machine. Men on relief could get WPA jobs regardless of their politics, but hundreds of thousands of supervisory jobs were given to local Democratic machines. The 3.5 million voters on relief payrolls during the 1936 election cast 82% percent of their ballots for Roosevelt. The vibrant labor unions, heavily based in the cities, likewise did their utmost for their benefactor, voting 80% for him, as did Irish, Italian and Jewish voters. In all, the nation's 106 cities over 100,000 population voted 70% for FDR in 1936, compared to 59% elsewhere. Roosevelt won reelection in 1940 thanks to the cities. In the North, the cities over 100,000 gave Roosevelt 60% of their votes, while the rest of the North favored Wendell Willkie by 52%. It was just enough to provide the critical electoral college margin.
With the start of full-scale war mobilization in the summer of 1940, the cities revived. The war economy pumped massive investments into new factories and funded round-the-clock munitions production, guaranteeing a job to anyone who showed up at the factory gate.
Decline and fall
The coalition fell apart in many ways. The first cause was lack of a leader of the stature of Roosevelt. The closest was perhaps Lyndon Johnson, who deliberately tried to reinvigorate the old coalition but in fact drove its constituents apart. During the 1960s, new issues such as civil rights, the Vietnam War, affirmative action, and large-scale urban riots tended to split the coalition and drive many members away. Meanwhile, Republicans made major gains by promising lower taxes and control of crime.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, the twin forces of the Civil Rights Movement and the counterculture caused a fracture in the party in the northern States. Many blue collar voters, who were socially and culturally conservative, disliked the aims of both the youth counterculture and Civil Rights Movements. The Republicans, first under Richard Nixon, then later under Reagan, were able to corral these voters with promises to be tough on law and order. The votes of blue-collar workers contributed heavily to the Republican landslides of 1972 and 1984, and to a lesser extent 1980 and 1988.
In many ways, it was the civil rights movement that ultimately heralded the demise of the coalition. Once the main civil rights laws were passed by Congress in 1964 and 1965, the old argument that Democrats were needed to block civil rights laws collapsed. That opened the way for the same social forces operating elsewhere to reshape voter loyalties. Democrats had traditionally solid support in Southern states (which led the region to be dubbed the Solid South), but this electoral dominance began eroding in 1964, when Barry Goldwater achieved unprecedented GOP support in the Deep South; all of the states he won bar his homestate Arizona which had voted for Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960. In the 1968 election, the South once again abandoned its traditional support for the Democrats by supporting Republican Richard Nixon and third-party candidate George C. Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama at the time. The only Southern state to give its 1968 electoral votes to Democrat Hubert Humphrey was Texas (and even then only narrowly), where Humphrey benefited from Texas being the home state of former President Lyndon Johnson.
With the collapse of the New Deal coalition in the South, in the 1960s, the region has generally voted for Republicans in presidential elections. Exceptions came in the elections of 1976, when every former Confederate state except Virginia voted for Georgia native Jimmy Carter, and 1992 and 1996, when the Democratic ticket of southerners Bill Clinton (Arkansas) and Al Gore (Tennessee) achieved a split of the region’s electoral votes. Barack Obama in 2008 also did relatively well, carrying Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.
The big-city machines faded away in the 1940s with a few exceptions, especially Albany and Chicago. Local Democrats in most cities were heavily dependent on the WPA for patronage; when it ended in 1943, there was full employment and no replacement job source was created. Furthermore, World War II brought such a surge of prosperity that the relief mechanism of the WPA, CCC, etc. was no longer needed.
Labor unions crested in size and power in the 1950s but then went into steady decline. They continue to be major backers of the Democrats, but with so few members, they have lost much of their influence.
Intellectuals gave increasing support to Democrats since 1932. The Vietnam War, however, caused a serious split, with the New Left reluctant to support most of the Democratic presidential candidates.
White Southerners abandoned cotton and tobacco farming, and moved to the cities where the New Deal programs had much less impact. Beginning in the 1960s, the southern cities and suburbs started voting Republican. The white Southerners believed the support that northern Democrats gave to the Civil Rights Movement to be a direct political assault on their interests, which opened the way to protest votes for Barry Goldwater, who, in 1964, was the first Republican to carry the Deep South. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton lured many of the Southern whites back at the level of presidential voting, but by 2000, white males in the South were 2–1 Republican and, indeed, formed a major part of the new Republican coalition.
The European ethnic groups came of age after the 1960s. Ronald Reagan pulled many of the working class social conservatives into the Republican party as Reagan Democrats. Many middle class ethnics saw the Democratic party as a working class party and preferred the GOP as the upper-middle class party. However, the Jewish community still voted en masse for the Democratic party, and in the 2004 presidential election 74% voted for Democratic candidate John Kerry, in the 2008 election 78% voted for President Barack Obama, and in the 2012 election 69% voted for President Obama.
African Americans grew stronger in their Democratic loyalties and in their numbers. By the 1960s, they were a much more important part of the coalition than in the 1930s. Their Democratic loyalties cut across all income and geographic lines to form the single most unified bloc of voters in the country.
Voting percentage: 1948–1964
Source: Gallup Polls in Gallup (1972)