If one is of the mind or makes a career out of analyzing/studying electoral politics one cannot miss the theory of realignment. In fact there have been so many realignment theories espoused on demographics, geography and electoral math that it makes one’s head spin. Admittedly, I come at this from the amateur’s perspective on the topic. I have not read tomes on the topic, done much multiple regression to find correlations nor have I been involved in any of the political campaigns involved in realignment theories. But what I do have is some common sense and the ability to look at exit polls and time. This alone puts many realignment theories out to the pasture.
For this post I want to look at putting five big realignment theories to rest. Four of the five are in the modern era while the fifth involves FDR and the New Deal. Each theory has had its heyday and is now being reexamined or condemned to the trash-bin of history. Lastly, I will look at the one realignment theory that still seems to hold up today.
1. FDR’s New Deal Coalition would last a generation: This theory might or might not be true depending on who you ask. The Silent Generation sure helped FDR get elected four times and Truman the same in 1948 but it also ensured a rocky tenure for FDR. FDR and Democrats did not enjoy consistent dominance during this period. In 1934 and 1936 FDR and his party did enjoy success but it came to a screeching halt in 1938. FDR attempted a “third New Deal” and embarked on a court packing scheme, the economy took a downturn and union violence broke out in several major cities. As a result the GOP gained 71 House seats and six Senate seats bringing them back to relevance in Congress. While FDR and his party would rebound in 1940 they never would enjoy the dominance they did from 32-26. In fact, the first election after FDR’s death in 44 would hand the GOP the reins of power in the House for the first time since the late 20’s. They would lose this control in 48 when Truman won election but they retook control in 52 and lost it in 54 until 1994. However, in 1952 Republicans would regain the White House helping ensure divided government. The idea that Democrats enjoyed unprecedented electoral power during the New Deal is truly only applicable from 1932-1936 and the voting habits of this period’s voters were far more fluid than one might think.
2. The rise of the suburbs would ensure a consistent Executive occupant: The rise of the suburbs was one of the most studied and anticipated demographic and geographic political shifts in US history. It would result in SCOTUS rulings on redistricting, see the balance of power shift from urban and rural to the suburbs and give both major parties new voters to target. Considering the suburbs boomed under Eisenhower it is little surprise many analysts would expect the growth of suburbs to yield strong GOP dominance. What is downplayed in this idea however is that the South remained solidly Democratic (giving them a base in Congress) and that both the GOP and Democratic parties fought campaigns on economic performance. Issues such as abortion and gay marriage, even Medicare, had yet to enter into the political arena. The growth of the suburbs never gave the GOP control of Congress and it did not ensure them consistent control of the White House. Rather, they were denied the White House in three of the five elections after Eisenhower became term limited. During this time Democrats also enacted LBJ’s Great Society with some GOP support. Hardly Republican dominance.
3. Watergate would usher in a new Democratic era: If there was one instance that shook the American political psyche to the core it was Watergate. Never had a President gone so far to consolidate his power as Nixon (R). Unsurprisingly Nixon would resign soon after the details came out. Vice President Gerald Ford was a swell guy who probably could have won an election in a normal environment but as it was he was dragged down by a stagnant economy and Watergate (he pardoned Nixon). Democrats were smart to nominate Jimmy Carter who appealed to Southern voters who had grown disillusioned with the Democratic Party over civil rights, states rights and fiscal issues. Yet, 1980 would yield a massive shift as Republicans would retake the Senate, Reagan would win the White House and do so by copying Nixon’s Southern Strategy. The elections of 84 and 88 would also give the nation GOP Presidents and not until 1992 would Democrats be able to again measure the White House drapes.
4. The Compassionate conservatism coalition: In many ways the Compassionate Conservative coalition that elected Bush in 2000 and reelected him in 2004 was a mirror image of Reagan’s support. Downscale Southern whites, evangelical and Catholic minorities and business friendly suburban voters united to give Bush his 2000 and 2004 wins. However, Democrats began to lock in Asian and Hispanic support at consistent high levels. Also, rich voters were becoming less partisan in their voting habits (new post on this soon). The Compassionate Conservative Coalition lasted all of three elections. It gave Bush victory in 2000, Republicans control of the Senate in 2002 and united control in 2004. By 2006 the War in Iraq, a series of scandals and failed Immigration and Social Security Reform had turned the public against the President and the GOP. The coalition disappeared. Of course elements of this coalition still remain in the GOP’s ranks today, predominately evangelical Southern whites. Heralded in 2004 as a strong nexus that would give the GOP electoral success a mere two years later the nexus apparently never materialized.
5. The emerging Democratic majority: Much as Kevin Philips wrote on the emerging Republican majority in the 50’s, Democrats John Judis and Ray Teixeira penned a book in 2002 analyzing election returns from that election and several prior. Combined with birth rates and other demographic data they concluded Democrats strong performances with minorities would ensure them a solid majority in Congress and power in the White House to boot. Whether this theory holds water or not is questionable at best. However, if one looks from 2002-today it is hard to say Democrats have established a strong majority in governance. Democrats enjoyed success in 2006-2010 but not always for the reasons Texiera and Judis espouse. Election 2006 was about a public unhappy with war and the government. Election 2008 however saw a transformative minority candidate get millions of first time minority voters to the polls and harness the power of the youth vote in a way not seen since Reagan. Yet, this majority disappeared in 2010 and reverted back to a largely suburban/rural and older white voter base. It reappeared in 2012 to a lesser extent than 2008 and the verdict is out on 2014. Whether Teixeira and Judis are right or not their theory seems flawed on several fronts. First, it assumed white voters would not move over to the GOP as minority voters make up more of the Democratic base (whites have). It also assumed these voters would come out regularly and third ignored the natural gerrymander the GOP enjoys in the Senate and lesser extent in the House. Largely rural and small states give the GOP two Senators and a handful of Representatives. While larger states give Democrats more House members and two Senators these are matched by GOP support in smaller and mid-sized states. There is also the 2013 election to suggest their realignment theory is hanging. In 2013 New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) won reelection largely on his strength with minority voters (won a quarter of black votes and a majority of Hispanic votes). Also, in Virginia, while Republican Ken Cuccinelli did not win he carried a third of Hispanics, a third of Asians and the 18-24 year old vote, a crucial group in the Democratic majority theory.
Of course reasonable people can disagree with me on this analysis. The one realignment theory I would hope they would not disagree on is the North/South realignment. As hinted at above the South used to be a Democratic bastion with a coalition of rural and upscale whites and African-Americans. By the same token the GOP found strong support in the Northeast due to entrenched business interests. However, discontentment with the New Deal in the South and civil rights in the 60’s gave the GOP a fertile base of issues to nurture and exploit. As a result Nixon would dominate the South in 72. It would take longer for the GOP to exploit statewide and legislative races, all the way to 2010, likewise many of the federal statewide and Congressional races. However, by 2010 it seems to safe to say the South is solid GOP territory. Indeed, the region only boasts 4 Democratic Senators (three endangered in 2014) and has only three Democratic Reps controlling majority-white districts. Even as the GOP was making inroads in the South the North was becoming more moderate and cosmopolitan. In 1984 while Reagan was routing across the country his margins in many Northeastern states were small by comparison. In 1992 Clinton would put the region solidly in Democratic hands (minus New Hampshire though it does lean left). Today, excluding New York the GOP controls only a single Senate seat in the region and seven House seats. Add in New York and the number of Reps jumps to 13. Also, just like the South in recent years this realignment has begun to filter down to statewide races. Republican Governors now only represent two states (ME and NJ) and both state legislatures are Democratic. Whereas Democrats until 2010 usually controlled Southern state legislatures the Northeast had already given Democrats the keys to those chambers.
Understand, this list is by no means exhaustive. America’s electoral history is littered with realignment theories that have fallen flat or are stalling like Texiera’s and Judis’s. To me however, the five realignment theories espoused above seem the biggest. As for the one theory that proved to be true, well it might be for a time longer. However, demographics and new generations may make it obsolete sooner than we think.