Party Dominance Doesn't Last

Party Dominance Doesn't Last

By Salena Zito - February 24, 2013

The chorus out of Washington, from the chattering classes to conservatives themselves], is that the sky is falling on the Republican Party.

If only those people would look at a diagram of our electoral history, they would see that nothing is permanent in American politics.

“While it may seem as though the Democrats have secured a dominant position over the Republicans, political party fortunes in America regularly change abruptly,” says Dr. Lara Brown, an expert on electoral politics.

Brown, the author of Jockeying for the American Presidency, points to the most startling turnaround in modern times – the eight-year revolution between Lyndon Johnson's reelection in 1964 (he won more than 61 percent of the popular vote, and 44 states and the District of Columbia; Goldwater won only six states and 38 percent of the vote) and Richard Nixon's reelection in 1972 (he won close to 61 percent of the popular vote and 49 states; McGovern won only Massachusetts and D.C.).

And last year’s presidential election was no runaway or realigning election, folks, despite all the hyperbole to the contrary. Remember, President Obama lost votes between 2008 and 2012, not normally an indication of an ascendant party.

Americans’ oscillation has been in hyper-drive for 20 years.

Democrats largely prevailed in the 1992 presidential elections; two years later, Republicans crushed them. Democrats won again in 1996 and 1998; the 2000 election was a tie; then Republicans triumphed in 2002 and 2004. Democrats came back in 2006 and 2008; Republicans won in 2010, and Democrats were back in 2012.

Sean Trende, a political scientist and numbers-cruncher at RealClearPolitics, doesn’t buy the idea that Republicans are as bad off today as Democrats were in 2004: “Yes, they lost the presidential election by a similar margin, but Democrats were a minority in the House and well off of their peak in the states.”

Republicans are almost at a postwar high in the House of Representatives, with only 1946 and 2010 resulting in a larger share of the chamber being held by them; the postwar highs also are true if you look at the number of statehouse seats held by the party and its 30 governorships.

“The House numbers are somewhat due to redistricting,” explained Trende. “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.”

The Senate does show some signs of weakness for Republicans, according to Trende. At the same time, 24 states went for Mitt Romney in 2012 and 26 states were more Republican than the country as a whole – suggesting that the basic Senate playing field for Republicans is still intact.

“Back in 2005, after George W. Bush won reelection, most of the news and analysis in the early part of the year focused on whether or not Republicans had created a ‘permanent majority’ and whether the 2004 election had been a realignment akin to William McKinley's in 1896,” Brown said.

Back then, news story after news story focused on the civil war between Howard Dean’s “Deaniacs” and establishment Democrats, and whether that fracture would so divide the party that Republicans would win future elections in a walk.

Today, the media focuses on the civil war between grassroots Tea Party types and establishment Republicans, says Keystone College political science professor Jeff Brauer. Sure, there is a divide but those two, but Brauer cautions against writing them off.

“The GOP still has the market on fundamental American ideals we were founded on," Brauer said. “They are still the deficit hawks in a time of unprecedented national debt and generally the party of small government.

“Those ideals not only keep Republicans relevant in the national debate, they keep (Republicans) controlling that debate.”

Today, every news story about the Republican Party deals with how it is working to improve itself while Democrats are in the position that most winning parties come to be in – one of complacency.

And it is precisely that “winner's mentality” – the idea that one doesn't need to do anything to improve – that usually is a party's downfall in future elections, according to Brown.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at
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