The Political Landscape After 2012

The Political Landscape After 2012

By Sean Trende - November 16, 2012

Like death, taxes, and the sun rising in the east, there is nothing more certain after a presidential election than a swift and usually overwrought round of analysis and advice for the losers. So it is this year for Republicans. If you Google “Republicans Whigs,” and confine your search to the past week, you will find multiple pages dedicated to the proposition that demographic trends are waiting to overwhelm the Republican Party, which is now a regional rump party awaiting extinction.

I’ve written some 75,000 words on the broad topic of demographic trends and realignments, and this election hasn’t done much to alter my thinking. There will be plenty more to say on this after the final votes are counted, exit polls are further refined, and other data sources, such as the CPS, are made available. For now, I think it is useful to take a look at the overall standing of the parties, and not just in the presidential race. Just looking at the numbers the Republican Party, overall, is actually in pretty good shape. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t set for a major decline; this could be a high point. But it does mean the Party would be starting its decline from a pretty high peak.

The following two charts show the percentage of House and Senate seats held by Republicans since World War II:

As you can see, Republicans are still almost at a postwar high in the House of Representatives, with only 1946 and 2010 resulting in a larger share of the chamber going Republican. This is somewhat due to redistricting (more on that in a subsequent article). But even if you assume that redistricting saved the party 20 seats -- a very generous assumption -- the GOP would find itself only a slight minority in the lower chamber, and well above its postwar average. Some political scientists have even argued that redistricting was basically a wash between the parties, and didn’t play a huge factor in the outcome.

The Senate picture does show some signs of decline for Republicans, although it is still nowhere near the depths it plumbed from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. This tendency will likely continue if Republicans continue to suffer from self-inflicted wounds. At the same time, 24 states went for Mitt Romney and 26 states were more Republican than the country as a whole, suggesting that the basic Senate playing field for Republicans is still intact.

Next, look at the number of governorships Republicans hold (I go back to 1876 for this only because I happened to have that data handy):

Here, Republicans have steadily increased the number of governorships they have held since their debacle in the mid-1970s. In fact, since 1876 there have only been six years where Republicans held a larger percentage of our nation’s governorships: 1921-22, 1970, and 1997-99. Their 30 governorships are comparable to the number held by Democrats after wave elections such as 1958 (35), 1964 (34), 1982 (34), and 2008 (28).

What about state legislatures?

Once again, Republicans are near postwar highs; the same is true if you look at the number of individual statehouse seats held by the party. It’s true that some of these seats were protected by redistricting, but even accounting for that, the GOP wasn’t going to be reduced to 1976 levels of irrelevance.

These last two data points are especially important for the Republicans, since governorships and statehouse seats represent the “farm teams” for statewide and national office.

Finally, what about the Electoral College? Republicans look back with nostalgia on the years from 1952 through 1988, when the GOP won seven of 10 presidential elections, including six landslides. But if I supplied you with information about the state of the economy in those years, some information on extant war efforts, and a bit of biographical information about the candidates (Ike was a great general; Carter, a one-term governor from Georgia), you could probably come within a few points of predicting how those elections would turn out.

The same applies to the years 1992 through 2012. Which of those were supposed to be strong enough Republican years that they could break through in Democratic-leaning states like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania? Certainly not 1992, 1996 or 2008. In 2000 the GOP actually ran well ahead of what the econometric models predicted; in 2004 it only ran a few points behind, likely due to the flagging popularity of the Iraq War. At the beginning of this year it certainly looked like 2012 would be a great chance for Republicans, but the economy then began to pull out of “stall speed” in the winter.

The simple truth is that this election turned out pretty much the way that the econometric models suggested it should. The GOP had deluded itself into believing that 2012 was a “gimme” -- and to be sure, it was winnable. Team Romney made some mistakes and failed to capitalize on opportunities. But overall, the result wasn’t out of line with what we’d expect from a tepid economy (this also cuts against the “demographics” argument; if demographics were becoming the GOP’s main problem, the GOP would increasingly run behind what the economy suggested it “should”).

Of course, this tells us nothing about where we go from here. It may well be that 2012 heralds a new coalition (which has been predicted since 2001) that pushes the party inexorably downward from what will eventually be remembered as a peak. Or it could be that we are seeing the emergence of a “presidential,” pro-Democrat electorate and a “midterm,” pro-GOP electorate.

Or it could be, as political scientist John Sides reminds us, that we are just seeing an “Obama coalition” that is specific to him. Put differently, 2008 happened, as did 2012. But so did 2009 and 2010. As Sides succinctly put it, “a realignment doesn’t take midterm elections off.”

For now it’s just worth noting that the overall picture from the last few election results is pretty equivocal, and is suggestive of substantial strengths and weaknesses for both parties. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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