Monday, November 12, 2012

A Realigning Election?

Obama 332, Romney 206

With those numbers, it's hard to believe it now, but it was almost an article of faith some 20 years ago that the Republicans had what was called a "lock" on the Electoral College. Between Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide and Bill Clinton's win in 1992, only one Democrat (the unfortunate Jimmy carter) had managed to win a term in the White House (and only one term at that). And, for all intents and purposes, the Western states were solidly, predictably Republican in presidential elections during that period. Then, everything changed. Bill Clinton won in 1992 and was re-elected in 1996 (in spite of the Republicans having regained control of Congress in 1994). In fact, in the six presidential elections from 1992 to 2012, the Democrats have won four of them - and won the popular vote in five out of the six! So much for the other party's "electoral lock."

The first and most obvious political science lesson here is that  things change. Realignments (in the classical 1936 sense of what political scientists call a "realigning election") are really recognizable as certain only in retrospect; and, of course, even genuine realignments are subject to eventual re-realignment the other way. The late 20th-century Republican "lock" on the electoral college (like the pre-1994 Democratic "lock" on the House of Representatives) was true - until it wasn't anymore. The 2008 election was widely seen as heralding another realignment - this time favoring the Democrats. That realignment seems to have been confirmed in 2012. And it will remain true - until (for whatever reason) it isn't anymore.

That said, it's that "whatever reason" that should be the focus of interest. In 1992, two things worked in the Democrats' favor - Ross Perot's 3rd-party candidacy and Bill Clinton. Not only is Bill Clinton perhaps the best and most popular politician of his generation, he also moved the party back from the ideological and identity-politics precipice to which George McGovern and his heirs had taken it. Once again, the Democratic Party was a Center-Left party, rather than a Left-Left party. And in a fair contest between a Center-Left party with a Center-Right party, the former will more likely emerge the winner.

But something else was also happening. As the Republican party moved more dramatically from being a Center-Right party to a Right-Right party, the Democrats were reverting to their earlier 20th-century status as the majority of the population's natural default party. Right at the time that the Republican Party was re-branding itself in the narrowest and most exclusivist terms, the composition of the electorate was changing forever. And the Democrats - as the broader and more inclusive party - became the prime beneficiaries.

Demography is not entirely destiny. As George W. Bush's successes with Latino voters illustrated, Latinos could conceivably have gone either way. Latinos could hypothetically have evolved (and may yet someday evolve) the way the so-called "Catholic Vote" has evolved - a group so diverse in socio-economic status as to be broadly representative of the larger electorate. Latinos could have become a group both parties would have to fight for, with whatever party doing best among them likely winning the election. Nothing like that is happening right now, of course. That's attributable in part to the Republicans' problematic position on immigration, but also because the core ideology of the new Republican Party has so little to offer to anyone who isn't a Wall Street financier or a business owner. (Even so, extreme Republican rhetoric on immigration will likely have long-term symbolic significance for Latinos - much as Republican legislative efforts at voter suppression in several states may tar the Republican brand long-term with the relevant constituencies).

So a real realignment has probably taken place. As with any such realignment, its strength lies in the evident fact that new voters, having entered the electorate identifying with one particular party, are likely to maintain that identificaiton - not necessarily for life (witness the aging, white, once-upon-a-time New Deal Democrats, who are now Republicans) but probably for several election cycles. 

The danger for the Democrats is equally evident. Just as internal forces within the Republican Party keep pushing it further rightward, internal forces in the Democratic Party may keep pushing it further leftward - especially on moral and cultural issues. To some extent, of course, that was what so undermined the New Deall coalition in the McGovern era, when the Democratic center in Washington could not control the the interest groups that constituted the party's base. Obviously, today's emerging electorate is younger and much more culturally liberal than the electorate of the 1970s and 1980s. So becoming a more Left-Left party is in the short term a winning strategy. In an era of dramatic economic and political change both at home and abroad, however, it is likely that other issues will dominate in the long-term. It was especially when the Democrats seemed to lose their way on those mainstream issues in the Carter era, when they were no longer perceived as the more trustworthy party on economic issues, that their majority evaporated. At present, the Democratis have regained the status not only of majority party but as the more trustowrthy party on economic issues. To remain the majority, being with younger and female voters on moral and cultural issues cannot - all by itself - substitute for that trust in the long-term.

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