Debunking Realignment Theory

For well over half a century political scientists have promoted the idea of electoral realignments or critical elections. Popularized by the likes of V.O. Key, the idea is that every 32 or 36 years electoral currents shift radically to favor one party or the other. Roughly speaking, the critical elections have been 1800 (Jefferson and the emergence of the Jeffersonian Republican), 1828 (Jacksonian Democracy), 1860 (the Lincoln Republicans), 1896 (McKinley and the dominance of the GOP), 1932 (FDR and the New Deal), and 1968 (Nixon and the New Right). According to this theory, we are overdue for a critical election. Some assumed Barack Obama’s 2008 victory marked such a shift. John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued back in 2002 in The Emerging Democratic Majority that demographic trends favored the Democrats, and that the party would be ascendant for the foreseeable future.

David Mayhew wrote the definitive rebuttal to the realignment school of thought. Mayhew dug deep into the electoral data and showed that political scientists had overvalued demographic trends and missed subtle clues that completely contradicted the critical election theory.

Sean Trende builds upon Mayhew and also rebuts realignment theory in The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government is Up for Grabs – and Who Will Take It. Trende looks back at electoral data dating into the 19th century and argues that those who advocate on behalf of realignment theory conveniently ignore elections that do not quite fit in with their neat picture. For example, if the 1896 election began a period of Republican dominance, what happened in the 1910s? To argue that Wilson’s election in 1912 was a fluke ignores the fact that Democrats had won control of the House in 1910, and had done quite well until World War I shifted the electorate back towards the Republicans. Trende also points out that the McKinley-Roosevelt-Taft GOP was a different beast than the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover GOP, as the party had become much more conservative.

Trende’s most startling argument – and one which the data certainly supports – is that the New Deal coalition did not flame out in the 1960s; rather, the New Deal coalition was dead as early as 1938. Southern Democrats had tolerated FDR’s early New Deal program, but his advocacy of greater government intervention pushed the southern Democrats away. Though Democrats retained nominal control of Congress for much of this period, Republicans and conservative Democrats had an effective majority.

Along these same lines, Trende postulates that if any real realignment occurred, it took place during the Eisenhower administration. The Eisenhower coalition, as he puts it, pushed the GOP to decisive victories in seven of nine presidential elections. Moreover, the solid Democratic south began shifting towards the Republican party at this point. In fact the south’s gradual shift towards the GOP had begun as early as the 1920s, but the Depression halted Republican advances here. Once the New Deal had ramped up, the Republicans again began making inroads. Republicans began being truly competitive in presidential elections during the 1950s, then started making inroads in Congressional races in the 1970s and 80s, and are finally now the dominant party on the local level.

Trende’s thesis effectively destroys the notion that Republicans only began being competitive in the south once Nixon deployed the “southern strategy” to woo racist southerners after the Civil Rights Act. As already mentioned, the GOP vote share in the south had been incrementally creeping up in the 1930s, with GOP vote shares moving out of the 15-20% range and inching up towards parity slowly and surely. In fact the GOP vote share in the south did not noticeably increase during  the 1960s, but instead crept up in the same incremental 1-2% annual range. Where Republicans really started making dents were with younger southern voters, as older southerners continued to cling to the Democratic party even though the national party’s values no longer matched their own. Considering that younger voters tended to have much more liberal racial views, the transformation of the south into a Republican stronghold has to be explained by something other than racial matters.

Even though Trende doesn’t come right out and say this, if anything the changing electoral map can just as easily be explained by the Democrats pursuing a northern strategy. As the Democrats began appealing to elite northern voters by pushing a more liberal agenda, this drove southerners and midwesterners away from the party. This trend would continue until Bill Clinton pursued a much different strategy, crafting his agenda to appeal to suburbanites and middle income whites. Clinton and the New Democrats were able to rip into Republican strongholds by advancing a more moderate platform. The end of the Cold War, as well as the rise of the Evangelical right, fractured the Eisenhower coalition, allowing the Democrats to win presidential elections.

But the Democrats do not have a stranglehold on the electorate themselves. First of all, their coalition is an uneasy one, consisting of discordant demographic groups (upper-class and working-class whites, for instance) that have potentially conflicting interests. And despite their ability to attract large chunks of the minority vote at the current moment, Trends believes that pundits are mistaken in their belief that Democrats will continue to perform at their current rate among these different groups for decades to come. For example, Latinos vote more like whites as they advance economically. Though middle class Latinos still vote more Democratic than do their white counterparts, as they assimilate they do tend to vote more Republican. It is for this reason that he dismisses arguments advanced by those who claim that exit polls actually over-represent GOP-leaning Latinos. These individuals point out that since Republicans win around 20% of the vote in precincts that are almost wholly Latino, it is inconceivable that Republicans could be claiming 35-40 percent of the Latino vote. But these communities tend to be among the poorer ones, and therefore there is nothing incongruous with wider GOP support from Latinos living in more affluent and mixed neighborhoods.

Trende also notes that the signs of the collapse of a Democratic majority were already apparent in the 2008 election. Obama’s electoral majority was actually fairly weak considering the state of the economy and widespread disapproval of George Bush. Moreover, the Democratic Congressional majority, as large as it was, was helped by Democratic over-performance in Republican-leaning districts. When Obama pursued what was largely considered to be a very liberal agenda, this pushed those Republican-leaning districts back into the GOP fold. Finally, the state of the economy at the time of the 2010 mid-terms cannot explain in full the size of the Republican victory that night, as most models based on the economy suggested a slightly more moderate Republican victory.

In general, Trende believes that prognosticators put entirely too much stock into economic performance. Though the state of the economy certainly plays a role in elections, it hardly tells the whole story. In fact most recent national elections have gone against economy-based projections. There are too many variables at play to simply base electoral projections on the unemployment rate and GDP growth.

Long story short, Trende thinks that electoral fatalism (ie. the idea that we are headed towards a period of one-party dominance) is mis-placed. Events will always transpire that will alter the electorate one way or the other. With that being said, upcoming elections are truly up for grabs.