Sunday, October 12, 2008

The R Word

This McClatchy article focuses on the L word ("landslide") but also slips in a mention of the R word ("realignment").
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.


Matt Jarvis said...

There's also some who argue that 1932 was a realignment because the party affiliations of large segments of the population shifted in a durable fashion. A "realignment" can occur when the compositions of the parties change, even if their relative strengths stay roughly the same.

I kinda like that definition, and by that one, there's just about no way this is a realignment. The conflicts between D&R are pretty much the same as they have been for 30 years. The alignment of groups between them is similar to the last 20 years.

I'm pretty sure that when I run a regression on Dem vote in the 2008 NES I'm going to get coefficients that really aren't all that different from the 2004 NES, just with a higher constant and maybe a minor increase (less than 5%) in a few coefficients.

Pietro de Simone said...

well it should have been a realignment... but until the Dems start turning the tables on "the culture wars" by reclaiming some of those old economic issues (& not just talking during election time), we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. Should be automatic these days, one would think, with a younger more "diverse" electorate, the war, 8 crazy years of W & Co., the financial/economic collapse, etc.

Seth said...

Matt, I think you're right that there's no serious shift of party allegiances going on right now. That said, if Democrats control the White House and the Congress for the next 12 years, will 2008 end up being viewed as a critical election?

That's one of the tricky parts with realignments; you never know when you're in the middle of one. Another problem is that we can't seem to agree on what they are. And yet another problem, as Mayhew points out, is that they might not even exist.

Meanwhile, Pietro, I'm thinking that the culture war is either dead or just on hold this year. This is partially because the GOP's choice of vice presidential nominee makes it harder for them to press the usual family values arguments. But the main reason is that the economy is screaming quite loudly in voters' ears this year. Maybe when the economy has recovered in a few years we can start talking about arugula and teen pregnancy again.

Chris D. said...

The wars, the economy, and Barack Obama have merely accelerated the rate at which the Baby Boomers are "coming home," so to speak. The war reminds them of Vietnam and makes them feel like hypocrits. The economy has them scared about retirement. The Democrats in power today are of the same opinions as those who tried to keep Boomers out of Vietnam and who defended Social Security and Medicare against numerous GOP attempts to reduce or eliminate them over the years. So, it's only natural that as the Boomers come to the realization that they will soon be beneficiaries of these programs, the will drift toward the Democrats en masse. Obama lets the liberal Boomers come full circle on the civil rights movement.