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By Jay Cost

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Is 2008 a Realignment?

Barack Obama's decisive victory last Tuesday has some wondering whether this was a realigning election.

"Realignment" is an overused term, and some scholars have questioned whether it is a profitable category to apply to elections. Temple University's Robin Kolodny wrote this a few years ago:

Realignment has been in trouble as a theory for explaining party identification and electoral behavior for some time. The most obvious problem is that there has been no full realignment since 1932, and no consensus has emerged on what, if any, partial realignment has taken place in 1968, 1974, 1980, or 1994.

Yale University's David Mayhew wrote a cogent critique of realignment theory in 2004, arguing that the facts don't fit the story so well.

So, let's lower our sights a little bit. Let's put aside the terminology and compare 2008 to three times that, regardless of whether they were realignments, were definitive moments in American electoral history: 1860, 1894-96, and 1932. Realignment or not, it should be profitable to see how today compares to these past times.


Upon James Polk's election in 1844, the Union was equally balanced between slave and free states. The addition of so much territory during his term disrupted that balance. The South wanted to extend slavery to the Pacific. A growing segment in the North wanted to limit it to existing slave states.

The government tried two solutions in four years. The first was the Compromise of 1850. The deal ultimately split the Whig party into regional factions. By 1856, it was gone. The second was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, implemented in 1854. It allowed popular sovereignty to determine whether the Kansas and Nebraska territories would be slave or free, precipitated a violent conflict in Kansas, split the Democrats, and effectively created the Republican Party.

By 1860, the stage was set. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln. Southern Democrats nominated Vice-President John Breckinridge on a pro-slavery platform. Northern Democrats nominated Senator Stephen Douglas on a popular sovereignty platform. Finally, a group of old Whigs and "Know-Nothings" formed the Constitutional Union Party, nominated former House Speaker John Bell, and called for saving the Union.

The following picture shows how this played out. As usual, Republicans are in red and Democrats are in blue. Also, Whigs are in brown, Southern Democrats are in gray, and Constitutional Unionists are in purple:

Taylor Pierce Buchanan Lincoln.gif

Lincoln won less than 40% of the popular vote, not having appeared on the ballot in most Southern states, but his Electoral College victory proved how politically powerful a unified North could be: 180 for Lincoln, 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and 12 for Douglas.


By the 1880s, the Democrats had returned to electoral competitiveness by accepting many of the political premises of industrial development. The end of Reconstruction and the Panic of 1873 ultimately gave them control over the House for eight of the next ten Congresses. The lone Democratic President of the era - Grover Cleveland of New York - favored the gold standard, which was good for industrial interests in the East but hard on farmers in the South and Midwest.

The grievances of farmers and rural people found expression via the Populist Party (shaded yellow in the subsequent picture), which had become a regional political force by 1892. The economic crisis precipitated by the Panic of 1893 brought these tensions to a head. The midterm election of 1894 saw the GOP pick up 130 House seats, based on big gains in the Northeast and North Central regions.

This was the beginning of a change that would manifest itself on the presidential level in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination, promising "free silver." His opponent, William McKinley, supported the gold standard. The election of 1896 was fought over the currency issue, and the result produced a sharp industrial-agrarian divide.

Cleveland Harrison McKinley.gif

Though the South is joined this time by the Mountain West and the Great Plains, the divide again favors the North. McKinley won 271 electors to Bryan's 176.


This was a significant election not simply because the Depression began under the GOP's watch. It also had to do with the party's response. President Herbert Hoover failed to address the crisis to the public's satisfaction. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, who had a great last name and a solid reputation of his own, having mobilized his government to fight the Depression in the Empire State.

Hoover Roosevelt.gif

Unlike in 1860 or 1896, a very broad transregional consensus emerged. As famed newspaper editor William Allen White later observed, the election of 1932 signaled "a firm desire on the part of the American people to use government as an agency for human welfare."


While the particulars of these elections are different, they tell a similar story about the political parties. In all three, the parties had to manage issues of great importance that could not be ignored. This is why we remember Lincoln's "House Divided," Bryan's "Cross of Gold," and Roosevelt's "New Deal." They each took clear stands on issues whose resolutions would determine the course the nation would set.

What's more, there was little room for common ground those years. Either slavery would expand or it wouldn't. Either the government would authorize the free coinage of silver or it wouldn't. Either it would take a more active role in the economy or it wouldn't. Practically speaking, the differences could not be split.

So, these issues upset the normal functioning of the parties. By their nature, parties select issue positions and emphases in pursuit of electoral majorities. Obviously, no party can undertake a full-scale reinvention of itself. However, in pursuit of a majority, it can frequently "finesse" matters. It can slightly alter some positions, it can equivocate or obfuscate on others, and it can emphasize particular issues or personalities depending upon the audience. The goal is to string together an electoral majority among the diverse elements of our large Republic.

In these years, this process was disrupted to some degree. Issues of great salience dominated the political discourse and forced the parties to stake out relatively clear positions. There was little room for finessing. Thus, votes from those years can be seen as opinions on the critical issues more directly than votes from other years.

So, examining the parties and the issues they handled this cycle might help us understand how 2008 stacks up against these three elections. Did the parties behave similarly this year as they did then? Were the issues similar?

I think the answers to both questions are negative, which cuts against the hypothesis that this election was a "realignment." For starters, there was no central, defining issue that disrupted the normal party process. Instead, both candidates covered a variety of issues, few in any depth. There was also a scarcity of clear contrasts between Obama and McCain. Indeed, on the subject that might have emerged as a realigning issue - the financial bailout - they voted the same way.

Relatedly, both candidates made the search for common ground a defining feature of their candidacies. McCain would cite Hillary Clinton just as often as Obama would mention Richard Lugar. There was no House Divided, no Cross of Gold, no New Deal. There was the promise of pragmatic governance and a change in tone toward bipartisan conciliation.

This evidence disfavors the idea that 2008 was like these previous elections. Now, it might be that 2008 was a kind of realignment - perhaps a "partial" one. However, I would return to the above quotation from Robin Kolodny. Adding a qualifier like this strikes me as the sort of inelegance that is tolerated when a theory is losing its explanatory power - like adding epicycles while waiting for the Copernican revolution.

None of this is to claim that the GOP isn't in trouble. For the Republicans, much depends on how well Obama governs. If he governs to the public's satisfaction - the GOP could be in the minority for a while. If he does not - it's return may be speedier.

-Jay Cost