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Putting the 'Emerging Democratic Majority' Theory to the Test

Putting the 'Emerging Democratic Majority' Theory to the Test

By Sean Trende - October 28, 2014

For political reporters, the home stretch is in sight for the 2014 elections.  For analysts like myself, the main event really occurs the following morning, when we get our first new data in two years. This will give us a chance to evaluate our election models, assess where we went wrong, and see where we might improve further.  It is something I generally look forward to greatly.

One thing that I’m not particularly looking forward to this cycle, however, are the updates to the Emerging Democratic Majority (EDM) theory. In simple form, this theory -- which earns its title from John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s classic 2002 book of the same name --states that demographic and sociological changes are driving the country toward a progressive majority.

The reason I’m somewhat dreading it is that the debate really hasn’t gone anywhere over the past few cycles. In fact, I can predict with a reasonably high degree of certainty what the basic claims will be this cycle.  If it is a good Democratic year, EDM theorists will surmise that, even in the best of conditions, Republicans are unable to take the Senate or win in purple states like Iowa and Colorado, nor can they make further gains in the House.  It will be a credible claim.

EDM skeptics will counter by pointing to weak candidates in key states (David Perdue in Georgia, Steve Southerland in Florida), fluky happenstance in states that aren’t really part of the EDM battleground (Pat Roberts in Kansas, Mike Rounds in South Dakota), and that under the EDM theory, the national environment shouldn’t be able to get this bad for Democrats in the first place, regardless of how it translates to electoral outcomes in 2014. It will be a credible claim.

On the other hand, if things turn out the way the polls presently suggest, EDM theorists will argue that this is representative only of the midterm electorate, that the battleground was skewed against Democrats this cycle, that Democrats performed well in governorships, that this is simply a function of some combination of the bad economy that Obama inherited and Republican tactics, and that sooner or later, the march of demographics will overrun the Republicans, even if it didn’t in 2014.  It will be a credible claim.

EDM skeptics, on the other hand, will argue that realignments don’t take midterms off, that the concept of midterm elections as distinct from presidential elections is a post-hoc creation, that midterms should be lagging the presidential trend line rather than pointing the opposite direction, that Democrats have “won” only three of seven elections since the book was published, and that the simplest overall explanation is that these elections have turned out exactly as we would have predicted, given the fundamentals of the races.

Rather than rehash these arguments, I thought it might be profitable to instead ask: Why do so many smart people find themselves so polarized on this question?  It isn’t a purely partisan issue, given that many Republicans, such as Karl Rove, fully buy in to the concept that the party has to change or face a Whig-like extinction, while many prominent liberals, such as Jamelle Bouie and Rick Perlstein are among the skeptics. Nor is it an academic/layperson debate, as prominent political scientists such as John Sides are counted among the skeptics.

It’s a bit of a puzzle, but I think a good starting point might be found in Bayes Theorem. This is a basically a method for determining what conclusions we should draw from new evidence, based upon our previous beliefs.  For example, if you lived in an area where it rarely rained (say, five days out of the year) and your meteorologist, who has a 90 percent accuracy rate, predicts rain, the counterintuitive conclusion is that there’s really only an 11 percent chance it will rain the following day. Why? In simple terms, your weather forecaster makes a mistake much more frequently than we would expect it to actually rain, so our expectation should be that he made a mistake, not that it will actually rain tomorrow. 

[Note: The following paragraph is the only one in this article with jargon; you can skim without worrying too much.] Bayes is less useful -- indeed it is frequently misused -- when we don’t have hard probabilities.  But I think it is nevertheless a useful heuristic device. For our purposes, I think we can separate EDM skeptics from EDM proponents on the bases of two parts of the theorem: The prior probability of a realignment (P(H)), and the chances of a false positive (P(E|~H)). For purposes of our discussion, I’ll concede that the chances of a false negative are low and set P(E|H) pretty high (0.9).  For the lay reader, all this concession means is that it is very likely we would see the sort of evidence EDM theorists present if we are actually in the midst of an emerging Democratic majority.

The problem with using Bayes Theorem in lay literature is that the probabilities assigned are usually somewhat arbitrary -- so again, don’t take the calculations that follow too literally.  It’s really the basic approach that is illustrative, rather than the details.

Let’s focus on these two things: The prior probability, and the likelihood that the evidence we’re seeing is really just a false positive properly explained through some other theory.  For most of the seminal EDM proponents, the prior probability of an extended Democratic majority occurring, even before any demographic data is presented, is quite high.  The EDM thesis is absolutely grounded in cyclical realignment theory:  The idea that every 30 years or so, one party achieves dominance (to use Samuel Lubell’s terminology, it becomes the “sun party”) while another party fades into the background (in Lubell’s terms, it becomes the “moon party”).

If you crack open your handy copy of “The Emerging Democratic Majority” (and it really is a critically important book that every analyst should read and own), you encounter a subsection labeled “How Realignments Work.” In fact, it is on the second page of the first chapter. Judis and Teixeira hypothesized that realignments now occur more gradually than in the past, and that 1992 represented the beginning of a new, post-1968 Democratic alignment.  The realignment was delayed, much like the Republican realignment stalled in the ’70s, but they argued that the 2000s should display a decisive turn in the Democrats’ favor (in fairness, many of the key indicators for realignments really are present in 1992: heightened turnout, third party candidacies, etc.). To them, 1994 represented the last gasp of the old conservative coalition.

Other core EDM books, such as Michael D. Hais and Morley Winograd’s “Millennial Makeover,” explicitly follow the basic realignment narrative. Emerging Republican Majority (ERM) theorists on the Republican side -- remember how Republicans won 97 of the 100 fastest growing counties in 2004? -- also began from a similar standpoint: Karl Rove famously sought to emulate the supposed McKinley majority of 1896 to 1932.

The particulars really aren’t all that important.  What is important is that the realignment literature of the 2000s was, in large part, born from the basic belief that American politics can be described by cyclical patterns of party majorities and minorities. Asked whether we should expect to see a new majority in the 2000s, the EDM theorist (along with the ERM theorists) answered with an emphatic “yes!” We might set their prior probability at 90 percent.

Most skeptics, on the other hand, start from a belief that realignment theory does not accurately describe how American elections work.  Following David Mayhew’s seminal “Electoral Realignments,” many political scientists and EDM skeptics came to conclude during the 2000s that realignment theory is fatally flawed.  I’ve explored this numerous times on this site, as well as in my book, “The Lost Majority” (now available for a bright, shiny penny at Amazon marketplace). Among the reasons for being skeptical of the concept of realignments:

  • Many elections that are not listed as critical elections nevertheless show many of the features of critical elections (1874, 1912, 1952), which disrupts periodicity and argues against the idea of extended party rule.
  • There is a distinct tendency to regress toward a neutral mean in elections.
  • One-party control of government is actually rare, and has only occurred after 13 of the past 34 elections.
  • The “runs” of wins and losses by one party or the other that we see in presidential elections are consistent with random chance.
  • The periodicity of electoral cycles, to the extent it ever existed, breaks down in 1932, as Republicans only briefly took unified control of government during their supposed majority period.
  • Realignment theory can be deconstructed as revealing a preference for an economic narrative; if our preference were for, say, a foreign policy narrative, we could write a coherent realignment narrative focusing on 1900, 1920, 1952, 1980 and 2008.  A civil rights narrative might see critical elections in 1860, 1892, 1936, 1964 and 2008.
  • Elections are well-predicted by a few fundamental factors, such as the economy, wars, scandal, and incumbency.

That last factor is, I think, the kicker. Even the most ardent realignment theorist will concede that the occasional war, recession and so forth will allow the out-party to win. To me, that is exactly backwards: Wars, recessions, expansions and so forth are the rule in elections, and our elections follow those much more closely than they do demographic trends. So a skeptic’s baseline belief is substantially lower -- maybe 10 percent. 

For a skeptic, in short, predicting an extended Democratic majority is a prediction of something we’ve never seen before in American politics.  For an EDM theorist, these sorts of things occur all the time. Of course, many analysts haven’t read much in the way of realignment theory; their baseline belief might be around 50 percent, or maybe a bit higher given what they learned in a college elections course. 

But these distinctions are critically important.  Let’s assume that the evidence presented for the EDM is pretty strong, with only a 10 percent chance of a false positive. For the EDM theorist, the math works out to a 97 percent chance of an Emerging Democratic Majority.  For someone starting from a position of neutrality, it is a 90 percent chance of an Emerging Democratic Majority.  But for the skeptic, even this overwhelming evidence only moves him to a position of neutrality: The odds that the EDM is correct are at best 50-50.

Most of the online debate overlooks these foundational issues and instead focuses on the second point: the strength of the demographic evidence.  For the EDM theorist, the evidence is overwhelming that demographics are pointing toward a Democratic majority.

Skeptics tend to view the evidence differently.  For the skeptic, the evidence is consistent with a number of theories about what is going on, and where things will lead.  The list of alternative hypotheses is lengthy, but among the more prominent:

  • Just as previous claims of realignments are simply attempts to create order out of reactions to random, short-term events, so too are our recent elections well-predicted by random, short-term events. In fact, the only true outlier in the recent past is in the Republicans’ favor. (To me this is the strongest argument, though it is by no means the only strong argument; it is also truer of presidential than congressional elections.)
  • The GOP might adapt its policies after another electoral defeat (though this concedes a future progressive majority, even if it is not necessarily a Democratic one).
  • Whites might become more Republican in response to a more diverse America, offsetting Democratic gains among non-whites.
  • Non-white population growth could be muted by assimilation and redefinition, similar to what occurred with Italian-Americans in the mid-to-late-1900s.
  • “Coalitions of everyone” are inherently unstable, as new issue cleavages inevitably divide groups that once had common interests. Put differently, can a coalition of upscale liberals, moderate middle-class suburbanites, and downscale blacks and Hispanics really coexist over the long term? Democrats were unable to hold together Southerners, blacks, liberals and white ethnics for a sustained, consistent period of time, while Republicans were unable to hold socially conservative Southerners in the same coalition with secularizing Northerners once the Cold War ended. In particular, the experience of 1993-1994 and 2009-2010 is not promising for the new Democratic majority (this is probably the main argument of my book).
  • The Hispanic vote is mostly reflective of economic class, and as Hispanics become wealthier, they will become more Republican.
  • The Democratic performances among Hispanics in 2008 and 2012 are quite possibly the exception, while the stronger Republican performances of 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2010 are more the rule.
  • The history of projecting realignments is riddled with false positives. If we picked any point in American history and attempted to project what the politics of the next 30 years would look like, we’d be wrong more often than not (1924, 1960, 1976); the analogy is the stock market predicting 14 of the last eight recessions.

Of course, there are other arguments, and there are responses to most of these objections.

This is the bottom line: Very reasonable and intelligent people have looked back over electoral history and determined that there is a rhythm to it. Not everyone agrees on this particular rhythm, but if you see a pattern that you believe enables you to make broad observations about future elections, you’re in good company. If you are in this camp, you can look at the evidence presented for the Emerging Democratic Majority theory and reasonably conclude that the theory is correct, even if you also conclude that the evidence for the theory has substantial warts (about which reasonable minds can also disagree).

But this just isn’t how I see electoral history. I see randomness and noise, a landscape that is littered with the carcasses of stillborn majorities that politicians were certain would flourish and thrive. I see Democrats winning an outright majority of the popular vote for the presidency a decade after the Civil War. I see Republicans winning the popular vote for Congress a decade after the Great Depression. I see Republicans winning three Senate elections and three consecutive presidential terms four years after being reduced to utter electoral irrelevancy in 1976.

Against this backdrop, it’s just difficult for me to look at the evidence presented for the Emerging Democratic Majority theory and believe that it accurately portrays the future. Even if I were to accept that Democrats were building a dominant coalition – and I’m not even certain the evidence for that is strong -- I don’t see any reason to believe that this majority will be different than every other majority that preceded it: short-lived and quickly upended by some utterly unforeseeable event.

That, I think, is where the conflict really lies. 

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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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