Is 2016 going to be a realigning election?

By Dr. Ralph Maughan

Ever since Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in the election of 1800, political parties have organized and contested national elections in the United States.

Political parties were a surprise development. They were not mentioned in the Constitution, but the parties certainly affected it by greatly modifying how our elections were decided.

Not only have parties defined our election choices, they helped Americans make sense of politics. Much of the political learning citizens have comes from past and present election campaigns. This learning might be as simple as remembering slogans and themes. In 2008 Barack Obama stressed “Change you can believe in.” George W. Bush ran as the candidate of “compassionate conservatism” in 2000. Bill Clinton got elected his first time in 1992 arguing “It’s the economy, stupid.” Four years later his campaign said his second term would be “A Bridge to the 21st century.” The losing candidate’s themes are usually not remembered much.

Except briefly, the American political party system has always been two major parties unlike other countries that often have lots of them. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is our election rules. The candidate with the most votes wins. Second place gets nothing. With this kind of rule what would be the point of a third or fourth place finish? None. So if a party wants to win office, this is a strong incentive to build a coalition of groups of voters so to get the most votes (or achieve a majority if it is a presidential election).

These electoral coalitions of voters are usually quite stable from one election to the next. For example, farmers, white Southerners, and conservative religionists strongly tend to vote Republican election after election. Blacks, well-educated women, Jews, those in the Northeast or the Pacific coast go for the Democrats.

Individual voters often have a stable loyalty to the same party over many elections. About 2/3 of the public tell pollsters they are a Democrat or a Republican. This doesn’t mean they carry around a party membership card. It usually means their sense of being of that party.

Historically, there has usually been a majority party that wins most of the presidential elections. That party starts out with a big advantage. The election is theirs to lose.

The majority party differs from state to state. For example, it is Republican in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming and Democrat in California, Oregon and Washington. Some states, like Colorado, are close to even.

Right now it is hard to say if there is a national majority party even though considerably more folks tell pollsters they are Democrats than Republicans. The trouble for Democrats is that Democrats don’t turn out to vote as often as their rivals. Therefore, two strategies have emerged. Democrats have get-out-the-vote drives and seek fewer restrictions on who can vote or on the times and places. Republicans often try to discourage high voting rates by making it kind of hard to register, requiring personal identification documents to vote, and having the polls in inconvenient places (for Democrats at least).

The longtime voting preferences of groups stabilize and make election outcomes more predictable. There is occasionally an election where there is a major reshuffling of groups’ party loyalties. This is called a “realigning election. They are not frequent.

Think of most national election years as being like the water level in a swimming pool. In years that are good for the Republicans, imagine it is like the water level rises. Good Democratic years would see the water fall below the normal pool level. However, the unusual realignment year would be like changing the shape of the pool.

The following elections are commonly thought to have been realigning: Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the first alignment when his Democratic-Republicans became the first majority party. By 1824, the opposition Federalist Party was no more.

In 1828 Andrew Jackson’s victory put the new Democratic Party into the majority against the minority Whip Party until the Civil War in 1860. The Republican Party formed in 1856 and by 1860 Republican Abraham Lincoln defeated the Democrats. Republican versus Democrats continued under a Republican majority after the Civil War. The Democrats retreated to a base in the segregated South.

In 1896 a great populist uprising in farm states and the West seized the Democrats. Unfortunately for them they couldn’t put behind them their dislike of urban Catholics or overcome the racial discrimination in the South. The election result was a renewed Republican majority all the way to the Great Depression in 1932.

At the very bottom of the Depression, Republicans were dumped out, and a strong Democratic majority emerged with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The New Deal introduced socialistic elements to stabilize and pump up the economy. Contrary to the common wisdom of Republicans and other observers today, the New Deal programs were very popular and carried the Democrats to victory most of the time until Ronald Reagan in 1980. The two Republican presidents during this period, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, did not challenge New Deal programs like social security.

Ronald Reagan’s great victory was probably another realignment, not just because he won, but because the Deep South was no longer a competitive place. The legendary Southern Democrats had died or become Republicans. The 100-year, one-party Democratic Party South and its switch to Republicanism was a very important party realignment, but it’s now lost on many political observers today. A number of working class Democrats switched sides in 1980 and afterwards. Ever since, this electoral group has been called the “Reagan Democrats.”

The 1980 realignment was not a thorough remaking. The Democrats remained the majority party nationwide though lessened in strength. The 1980 realignment was one of increased two-party competition with Republicans increasingly winning control of one or both chambers of Congress and Democratic strength growing at least slowly at the presidential level with four terms between Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama.

Today, suddenly the Republicans are cracking up and the Democrats are none too stable with populist Bernie Sanders challenging Democratic establishment Hillary Clinton.

With the Republicans, populist Donald Trump seems to be ripping a hole in that party’s long-time voting coalition of evangelicals, the wealthy, anti-government libertarians, rural voters, and White Southerners. Trump’s voters seem to be the less wealthy and less religious Republicans. They are not so motivated by traditional Republican promises of tax cuts, dismantling the government, and bringing conservative religion into the government and other institutions.

The evangelicals are tired of being told to wait on the hot button issues of sexual behavior, gender, and science. Libertarians are not happy about increased religious controls on personal behavior and Republican support of government snooping to get at terrorism. Who then will continue strong support for the “producers” or “job creators” — wealth and corporations?

So, there are three or four factions among Republicans pulling apart. They are not likely to come back together well no matter who is their nominee.

One important thing about realignment inside one party’s voting coalition … it doesn’t stay there. When one party breaks up or merely reshuffles its base support, there is opportunity and maybe danger for the other party. Whether it is Bernie or Hillary, the Republican crackup is in front of the on-coming Democrats.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie Johnson Maughan. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.