Election Review: Moving Beyond "Permanent Majorities"

Election Review: Moving Beyond "Permanent Majorities"

By Jay Cost and Sean Trende - January 10, 2009

Michael Barone's latest column is an important one. Its central thesis is that in a diverse country with a long tradition of competitive two-party elections, trying to build a permanent majority is a fool's errand. This is a point worth amplifying - as it relates to our ongoing series on the election.

The classic view of realignments is that they occur in roughly 30-year intervals. Under this framework, the elections of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, and 1932 represent realignments, or sharp breaks with the elections that preceded them, resulting in the birth of new, lasting majority coalitions. The popularity of realignment theory has spilled over to the general punditry. Hundreds of blog posts and columns have already been written on the question of whether 2008 is a realigning election or not.

As Barone explains, these examples do not fall neatly into the "every thirty years" rubric - or indeed any rubric. The most glaring problem not discussed by Barone is that no clear-cut realigning election occurs after 1932. Some would argue that 1968 was a realigning election, with Nixon's "Silent Majority" signaling the rise of a new coalition. But given that Republicans failed to take Congress for another 25 years, that Democrats won an enormous popular vote majority in the House in 1974, and that Nixon governed as a relatively liberal Republican, this argument is problematic. Some would argue that 1980 was the realigning election, but again, Republicans failed to capture the House for another decade, and their control of the Senate proved fleeting.

More importantly, even the idea of a lasting and unique New Deal majority existing from 1932-1968 is questionable. The 1932-1968 Democratic majorities can best be viewed in three distinct phases. From 1932-1936, the Democrats were ascendant, largely obliterating the Republican Party in Congress and in the governorships. The second phase began in 1938, when the GOP reduced the Democrats' majority in Congress to 262 seats, down from an astounding 334 seats heading into the election.

This was more than just a "dead cat bounce." In the 1938 midterm election, Republicans were about 3 points short of a majority of the national vote in the House. This result is all the more impressive when one considers that 194 Democrats - about 20 shy of a House majority - had been elected with 60% or more of the vote only two years earlier. More importantly, this election brought the Republicans close enough to parity that, in combination with Southern Democrats, they could prevent New Deal legislation from coming to the floor.

Democratic margins narrowed steadily in the 1940, 1944 and 1948 Presidential elections. Meanwhile, Republicans were increasingly competitive in congressional elections. In 1942, they won the total House vote by 4.5 points, but only won 48% of the seats. [This "perverse" outcome (which has not been repeated since) owed itself to many factors, including the gross disparities in district size occasioned by congressional redistricting in the years before the one-person-one-vote standard.] In 1946, Republicans won 53.5% of the House vote and 56.5% of the House seats. They suffered a setback in 1948, losing the majority, but in the next four cycles the party tied or ran just a few points behind the Democrats in the House vote and largely held their ground in the Senate.

In other words, from 1938 to 1958 Republicans were extremely competitive on the congressional and presidential level. If not for the timing of events such as Hitler's invasion of Poland and the dawn of the Cold War in 1948, they might have had even more success. After the 1958 recession, the New Deal coalition seemed ascendant again, and phase three of the New Deal majority began. Democrats once again gained large Congressional majorities, which lasted well into the supposed Republican realignment of the 1970s and 1980s. They won the Presidency narrowly in 1960 and by a landslide in 1964, but just four years later, Nixon came to power and another supposedly permanent majority came into being.

This discussion implies four reasons to be suspicious of talk of permanent majorities. First, the arguments in favor of them are typically overstated. Most periods of so-called permanent majorities in American history are not as clear-cut as they first appear. Not since the demise of the Whigs has an election destroyed a major American party. Instead, the party that seems to have been reduced to permanent minority status is usually just a few cycles away from having a significant share of power.

Second, the American public clearly has use for a two-party system. Why else would it keep returning the minority party to power? Many ideologues like to think that their side has a monopoly on the Good and the Right, but the broad middle of this country is non-ideological, and we can always count on it to elevate the minority party when the majority is not governing to its satisfaction.

Third, to borrow a phrase, the parties respond. Parties are not static. Instead, they're collections of individuals whose personal aspirations translate into a collective goal: the acquisition of political power. That goal forces party agents to rethink and refashion their message when they are in the minority. They select issue positions and emphases in pursuit of an electoral majority. If those selections fail, they try again. Sooner or later, they succeed. That's why we know slogans like the "Full Dinner Pail," the "New Deal," the "New Frontier," the "New Democrats," the "Contract with America," "Compassionate Conservatism," the "Change We Can Believe In" and so on. These are all the product of strategic actors within the parties fashioning new messages to appeal to the electorate in pursuit of a majority.

Fourth, elections, like polls, are snapshots in time. If many elections had been held months earlier or later, we might have had different results. For instance, what if the recent financial collapse had occurred three months later? Consider this image of the RCP average from the beginning of the RNC to just past the end of the Presidential debates.

2008 Fall Trend.gif

We see that McCain's lead over Obama holds until Lehman Brothers and AIG collapse. McCain's numbers drop again after he suspends his campaign, and Obama's start to rise as the Dow later starts to fall. By the time the stock market bottoms out around 8,500, Obama had the 8-point lead that he would hold through Election Day.

Without the collapse, the campaign dynamic could have been quite different. For instance, how would the country have reacted had the Obama campaign been forced to go sharply negative, rather than employing the kind of "Rose Garden strategy" it was able to employ? If one accepts that the financial collapse hurt Republicans by even a couple of points, then Norm Coleman, Ted Stevens, and Gordon Smith would have stood a much better chance of holding their seats, and Republican House losses might have been quite reduced. In other words, were it not for the timing of an event that was out of the campaigns' control, the election could have been different.

We can ask these types of questions for many elections. What if Bush's drunk driving arrest in 2000 had never broken, or had broken months earlier? What if the Clinton Administration handled the Elian Gonzalez kerfuffle differently? What if Newt Gingrich had chosen not to shut down the government in 1995? What if Ross Perot hadn't run in 1992? What if Michael Dukakis hadn't pardoned Willie Horton and vetoed the mandatory Pledge of Allegiance bill? What if the recession of 1982 had lasted a few months longer? What if the 1980 election had been held shortly after the hostages were released, instead of before? What if Ford had not pardoned Nixon? What if Nixon had shaved?

None of this is to say that election results are arbitrary or random, and obviously these events did happen. It's also not to deny the fact that both parties have relatively stable bases that can shift - be it suddenly, or slowly over time - in "realigning" ways. The movement in the South Central region we noted in Wednesday's review is a testimony to this. Instead, our point is that unique events can play a critical role, even as discussions of permanent majorities attempt to divorce election outcomes from those events. It is not that difficult to see how any of these elections could have turned out differently, but for a few key occurrences happening as they did when they did. In light of this, can we really assert that voting alignments can be made permanent, or that the result of any election is pre-ordained?

In short, presidential elections have unique and stable qualities to them. The parties' electoral bases generally offer the stability, but the candidate's personalities, their messages, and the issues of the day make each one unique. In a certain sense, it's fair to say that each victor creates his own distinctive "alignment." Obama's winning coalition is different from Kerry's losing coalition, and different from Clinton's winning coalition, which in turn was different from Carter's, and so on. There are similarities, to be sure, but there are plenty of differences. That is why we are taking the time now to carefully examine the 2008 Presidential returns.

Sean Trende can be contacted at

Jay Cost and Sean Trende

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