What If Party Makeovers Don't Work?

By Sean Trende - August 15, 2013

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Losses inherently expose cleavages within the losing party, and result in calls for change. That’s understandable. But we really need to keep things in perspective when Democrats have had a parallel internal debate three times (at least) in the past 13 years.

For that matter, the tendency to prophesy doom for a party after a loss is not limited to modern times. Consider the following:

-- “Unless the Democrats can meet this threat [of growing suburbs], they may find themselves defeated by Levittown.” Hyman and Sheatsley, 1953

-- “Unless the Republican Party is delivered from its reactionary leadership and reorganized in accordance with its onetime liberal principles, it will die like the Whig Party of sheer political cowardice.” William Borah, 1934

-- “The ‘solid south’ . . . has at last been shattered to such a degree that all the king’s horses and men of the nursery rhyme could not put it together again.” Burr Ramage, 1896

-- “There is a belief in many quarters that the Republican Party is about to disappear.” Review of Reviews, 1893

7) What if it makes no sense to think about the long term?

If I were sitting here in 1925, I’d bet my career on three guarantees: (1) that African-Americans would always vote Republican in presidential races (after all, the Democrats had just deadlocked at their convention over whether to condemn the Ku Klux Klan); (2) a Republican would never carry the South in my lifetime; and (3) the Democrats were doomed because the fast-growing white ethnic population had just voted Republican for the second-straight election.

I would quickly lose that bet. Guarantee No. 3 became inoperable in 1928; No. 1 became inoperable in 1936; and No. 2 became inoperable in 1956.

We can move through elections and see the same thing. If you’d told someone in 1960 that a Republican in 2008 would win the white Catholic vote but lose an election (or that the first national ticket without a Protestant would come in 2012 and would be a Republican ticket), you would have been dismissed as a crank. It hardly looked in 1976 like the Republicans would become the pro-life party, or that Democrats would become pro-choice.

More recently, here is a complete list of states that had Democratic PVIs in 1988, listed from most Democratic to least: Rhode Island, Iowa, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, West Virginia, New York, Wisconsin, Washington, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Vermont, California, Missouri, New Mexico, Connecticut, Montana, South Dakota. Five of those 20 states are red today, and states like Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are on the purple end of the spectrum, rather than the deep blue end.

Not a single political observer in 1988 would have predicted that 12 years later a Republican would lose Connecticut by 17 points, or New Jersey by 16 points, and yet would just barely lose the popular vote. At the same time, no one could have predicted a close race when a Republican lost Wisconsin by 5,000 votes, or won West Virginia by six points. Yet that change was just around the corner.

Political coalitions are in constant flux, sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in substantial ways. I have a vague sense of where things might stand in 10 years, but beyond that, I really do think things are completely unpredictable, and that it is a bit silly to base policy today on trying to influence votes that far out.


The press has a tendency to present elections as bold clashes of ideology, with superior campaigns duking it out to convince Americans of the rightness of their cause. The truth of the matter is significantly less sexy. Both parties field reasonably competent candidates who position themselves somewhere between the proverbial 40-yard lines ideologically, who raise roughly similar amounts of money, and who hold campaign events drawing thousands of people.

The net effect -- and, quite frankly, I’ve only slowly come around to this view myself -- is that these things tend mostly to cancel themselves out. We’re then left with “big picture” factors that really make a difference in campaigns: wars, the economy, major scandals.

Even the demographic debate we’ve been having tends to come out in the wash. Both parties have large, loyal bases: White evangelicals actually gave Mitt Romney more votes than African-Americans and Hispanics combined. And as I’ve written time and again here at RealClearPolitics, in a large, diverse country, these coalitions tend to behave like water balloons over the medium to long term. As you press down on one side, another side bulges up and moves toward the other guy. It’s just the nature of making governing choices.

But this shouldn’t invite complacency from either party. There’s an odd sort of prisoner’s dilemma at work. If both parties failed to raise money or run a campaign, or if both parties nominated uncharismatic extremists, our electoral history would look much the same, since (again) those factors would cancel out. The problem is that if one party nominated an extremist or tried to resuscitate the old “front porch” style of campaigning, the factors would not cancel out. The party that ran a modern campaign or did not nominate an extremist would blow the other side out of the water.

This is where I think the reformers have a point. While the fundamentals made Obama a favorite in 2012, he was not an overwhelming favorite. The Republicans had a weak candidate with an unappealing life story, who ran a campaign with little appeal to those outside of traditional Republican constituencies (although Obama had weaknesses of his own). As a result, they probably ran a point or two behind what the fundamentals suggested.

But a stronger candidate with broader appeal might have been able to run a point or two ahead of the fundamentals, and thus win the election. More importantly, we should bear in mind that if the party nominated someone who was truly ideologically out of step with the median of the broader electorate, that penalty would grow (though even then, it probably wouldn’t be more than three or four points).

So I think there’s something to be said for makeover efforts, at least as they relate to the occasional election where the parties really are evenly matched. What we need to avoid is what has become a biennial explosion of frantic analyses examining how the losing party needs to fundamentally remake itself or face extinction. If the Democrats can win a supermajority in the House less than a decade after the Civil War ended, or Republicans can win the popular vote in the House a decade after the Great Depression bottomed out, then neither party is going extinct any time soon.

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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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