Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is the 2008 Election a Realignment?

A realignment is a lasting change in party coalitions. During a realigning period, one of the two major parties will gain new voters from those who were non-voters, independents, or previously aligned with the other major party. This shift will usually make one of the two major parties dominant in elections until the next realigning period, which lasts about 30 to 40 years.

This idea was first developed by V.O. Key in the 1950s, and was expanded by Walter Dean Burnham in 1970. Burnham classified four elections, 1828, 1860, 1896, and 1932, as "critical elections," or an election that causes a realignment. There is little evidence for critical elections. In Electoral Realignments (2004), David Mayhew finds no evidence that a single election has caused the type of change described by Key and Burnham, though 1932 comes the closest.

We do know, however, that party coalitions change over time. The Democratic Party coalition that put Roosevelt in the White House in 1932 is different than today's Democratic coalition, for instance. This leaves open the possibility that the 2008 election is part of a realigning period. Let's examine the arguments opposed to and in favor of this notion.

No, the 2008 election is not part of a realignment.
  1. Obama only won with 53% of the popular vote, a clear lead, but not a dominating one. We remain a nation closely divided between the two parties.
  2. Looking at the change in the electoral college from 2004 to 2008, small shifts in a few states that were swing states or becoming swing states led to Obama's electoral college victory. So, things didn't change that much, an argument also made by John Sides at The Monkey Cage.
  3. There was no shift in the party coalitions. Democrats did well among groups they traditionally do well with and Republicans did well among groups they traditionally do well with.
  4. "It's the economy, stupid," and an unpopular president. Larry Bartels makes this argument. Democrats did well because the economy is doing poorly and our Republican president is unpopular, not because the electorate has newfound confidence in Democratic policies.
Yes, the 2008 election is part of a realignment.
  1. It's time. Like I said, realignments seem to happen about every 30-40 years. This time period makes sense; because, that is about how long it takes for one generation of voters to leave the electorate and a new generation to enter. So, if a realignment occured around 1932, the next one happened in the 1960s or 1970s, and we are due for another.
  2. For two straight elections, 2006 and 2008, Democrats made big gains.
  3. Voter turnout is high. Realignment theory predicts that turnout will increase during realigning periods. In 2004 and 2008, turnout has been higher than usual.
  4. Obama, and Democrats did well among new voters. A realignment can be caused by bringing new voters into the system. Obama did well among young voters and put a lot of effort into registering Latinos and getting them to the polls.
For more on the Yes side, read this article by John Judis in The New Republic.

But there is still another argument than can be made: Maybe, it is up to Obama.

In The Politics Presidents Make (1997), Stephen Skowronek suggests that realignments are brought about by presidents who are given the opportunity, and take advantage of that opportunity. If Obama has that opportunity, it would be up to him to build a new Democratic Party coalition. A similar argument was made by Andrew Kohut in the Washington Post. He said, "Everything will depend on the success Obama has. If the new administration takes us left and it works, then people will be won over."

So, what do you think? Leave a comment and/or participate in my poll.


Mel said...

I am not sure it is a realignment, because while both parties offered differences they were not clearly defined to the general voter.

Time will tell on this one, we won't know if there is a realignment until 2010

Eric said...

I definitely think there was a realignment. I think that there was virtually no way that a Republican could have won this year. The Democrats could have run anyone (or anything that is living/breathing) up there and would have won because people are fed up with the Republican party and its irresponsibilities. And, I don't see it changing in the next two or four years either. Until the Republicans come to terms with environmental issues, actually make good on the promise of being a fiscally responsible party, and figure out what to do about social conservatives they're going to continue losing to Democrats.

Anonymous said...

Eric wrote that the GOP should get rid of social conservatives. Perhaps the editorial by John Hawkins - Five Hard Truths for RINOs on townhall.com from Nov 28 might prove enlightening. Hawkins contents that "there can be no fiscal conservatism in D.C. without social conservatism."