Barring a dramatic change in the political landscape over the next three weeks, Democrats appear headed toward a decisive victory on Election Day that would give them broad power over the federal government.
The victory would send Barack Obama to the White House and give him larger Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate — and perhaps a filibuster-proof margin there.
That could mark a historic realignment of the country's politics on a scale with 1932 or 1980, when the out party was given power it held for a generation, and used it to transform government's role in American society.
The term "realignment" is thrown around pretty regularly in presidential election years, with little consensus on what it actually means. The accepted political science definition is a sudden and durable shift in voter loyalties toward the parties, usually involving the introduction of a new set of issues. So, for example, there was a realignment in the 1850s when voters essentially stopped voting on economics and started voting on slavery. This killed off the Whig party and allowed for the rise of the anti-slavery Republicans, while forcing the Democrats to abandon their northern allies and focus on becoming an exclusively pro-slavery party. Some even reject the idea that 1932 was a realignment, since the parties really didn't shift positions on anything; there were just suddenly a lot more Democrats in office.
Could we be seeing a realignment this year? My impression is that the electorate isn't really realigning on any new set of issues. Republicans and Democrats largely seem to believe what they have for years. Republicans are just in a bad position this year due to the economy and several wars.
On the other hand, voters' opinions toward the economy are in flux right now and aren't necessarily falling along party lines. If the congressional vote on the budget bailout was any indicator, there's a lot of hostility toward the government's actions. There could be room for an alliance of bailout opponents: Republicans who believe failing businesses should be allowed to fail and Democrats who do not feel they should have to pay for Wall Street's errors. I'm not sure what such an alliance would end up looking like or if it would have any durability.
Regardless of whether this election meets the proper definition of realignment, it could fall along the lines of 1932 and 1980, where the new party in power will have a considerable mandate to shape policy for a decade or two. Interesting times.