Political history detailed
In 1949 Dr. V.O. Key, Jr. wrote a book entitled, “Southern Politics in State and Nation.” His book is considered the bible of southern political history. It is still the cornerstone textbook of choice for most courses on southern politics taught at universities throughout the country.
When Key writes about Alabama he has a chapter devoted to a unique but clear premise regarding our state’s politics at that time. His theory is called the “friends and neighbors” politics of Alabama. According to Key, “A powerful localism provides an important ingredient of Alabama factionalism. Candidates for governor tend to poll overwhelming majorities in their home counties and to draw heavy support in adjacent counties.”
As Key astutely pointed out, this development has indeed played out repeatedly over the years in Alabama politics. We have traditionally had a large field of candidates seeking the governor’s office over the years. Over and over again this friends and neighbors politics plays out. Every serious candidate for governor garners unheard of support from homefolks.
I teach southern politics at Troy University and when we discuss Key’s friends and neighbors theory I tell my students that it is so pronounced that even if their local candidate was a well known crook or drunk he would carry his own area. The mentality is that even if he is a scoundrel he is our scoundrel and we are going to vote for him because he is one of the homefolks.
A lot has changed about southern politics over the last 60 years. However, I am here to tell you that Key’s friends and neighbors political theory on Alabama politics is still alive and well. Dr. Key would marvel at the results from the June 1 GOP primary for governor.
It is a classic case of friends and neighbors politics. All three of the major Republican candidates polled overwhelming advantages in their home bailiwicks.
I wish you could see a map of the state that colors the counties of each of the candidates hometown and local vote.
Dr. Robert Bentley illustrated the most pronounced devotion from the local folks. This popular Tuscaloosa physician polled 63 percent of the vote in his home county.
His closest rival received 13 percent. Bentley also carried every rural county surrounding Tuscaloosa.
He won large majorities in Fayette, Pickens, Greene, Hale and Bibb. Tim James carried every county surrounding his hometown of Greenville. He garnered 60 percent from his homefolks in Butler County while his closest rival got only 16 percent.
He racked up pluralities in every county adjoining Butler, including Crenshaw, Lowndes, Wilcox, Conecuh, Covington and Monroe.
His local surge continued throughout the Black Belt until it met Bentley’s surge from Tuscaloosa.
Key’s theory is more prevalent in Alabama’s rural counties. Our urban counties have not always delivered the friends and neighbors hometown loyalty to their native son candidates as their country cousins. However, Bradley Byrne’s home area and region bestowed a welcome boost to their local boy almost as pronounced as Tuscaloosa and Greenville did for Bentley and James.
Byrne received 48% of the vote in populous Mobile County where he practiced law. His closest challenger received 25%. Byrne polled the identical 48% in neighboring and fast growing Baldwin County where he lives and has deep roots. His closest challenge came from Tim James whose family has lived there in the past. However, James got only 22% compared to the native son Byrne’s 48%.
These two port counties generated a combined 67,000 votes in the GOP primary. It was clearly this local friends and neighbors vote for Byrne that propelled him into the lead for the runoff. He received over 31,000 votes in these two vote rich counties.
In fact, a clear urban vs. rural flavor evolved in the June 1st primary. Byrne did very well in the urban areas. He carried all the metropolitan counties of Jefferson, Shelby, Madison, Montgomery, Mobile and Baldwin, whereas James and Bentley did better in the rural counties. Bentley probably beat James out of the runoff because there are more voters in his hometown of Tuscaloosa than James’ hometown of Greenville. There were close to 18,000 votes cast in Tuscaloosa County compared to 1,800 in Butler County.
On the Democratic side, Ron Sparks polled a resounding 86% in his home county of DeKalb. He received similar overwhelming margins in every adjoining county. In fact, he carried every county in North Alabama.
So, as you can see, friends and neighbors politics is still alive and well in Alabama.