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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- "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.
- 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.
- For two straight elections, 2006 and 2008, Democrats made big gains.
- Voter turnout is high. Realignment theory predicts that turnout will increase during realigning periods. In 2004 and 2008, turnout has been higher than usual.
- 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.
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.