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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: is this realignment? This essay will offer a preliminary answer to this question.

"Realignment" is an overused term, and many scholars have begun to question whether it is a profitable category to apply to elections. This is what Temple University's Robin Kolodny had to say 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.

This is an excellent point. Yale University's David Mayhew wrote a cogent book in 2004 critiquing the entire genre of realignment scholarship, arguing that the facts of any election have a hard time fitting the theory of realignment.

So, let's lower our sights a little bit. Let's put aside the terminology and compare 2008 to three elections that, regardless of whether they were actual realignments, were critical contests in American history: 1860, 1896, and 1932. Realignment or not, it should be profitable to see how this cycle stacks up against these past ones.


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 pro- and anti-slavery Whigs. By 1856, the Whigs were finished. 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. It precipitated a violent conflict in Kansas, split the Democrats, and effectively created the Republican Party, which stood for keeping slavery out of all territories.

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

The following picture shows how this played out (Whigs are in brown, Southern Democrats in gray, and Constitutional Unionists in purple):

Taylor Pierce Buchanan Lincoln.gif

Lincoln won less than 40% of the popular vote, but his electoral college victory was definitive: 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

An industrial-agrarian divide like this would ultimately favor the industrial party, which was the GOP. McKinley won 271 electors to Bryan's 176. Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York would go Republican in seven of the next eight presidential elections. On the congressional level, the Democrats were again reduced to minority status, controlling the House in just four of the next seventeen Congresses.


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 Hoover failed to address the crisis to the public's satisfaction. Thus, the party was severely discredited. In eight years time, the GOP would go from 270 House members to just 88 - and it would be 20 years before the GOP would win the White House with a war hero who promised a "moderate conservatism" that accepted the basic premises of the Roosevelt presidency.

This giant lurch manifested itself in the Electoral College.

Hoover Roosevelt.gif

As famed newspaper editor William Allen White later said, 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 existential 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." Each man took clear stands on issues whose resolution would determine the course of the nation. In these elections, little else mattered.

What's more, there was little room for common ground. Either slavery would expand or it wouldn't. Either the currency would be pegged on silver or on gold. Either the government would take an active role in the economy or it wouldn't. Practically speaking, these 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. These positions can be fluid. Obviously, no party can undertake a full-scale reinvention of itself. However, in pursuit of a majority - it can "finesse" things. It can slightly alter some positions, it can equivocate or obfuscate on others, and it can emphasize particular issues 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, the votes for Lincoln or Douglas, McKinley or Bryan, and Roosevelt or Hoover can be seen as proxies for opinions on the issues of slavery, industrialization, and depression. Understandably, these shifts had lasting qualities. Slavery, industrialization, and depression - each was bound to dominate politics for some time. When they had finally faded, a voter's loyalty was often for the party that was with him or her when it really mattered.

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 an absence of clear contrasts between Obama and McCain. Instead, both candidates had a habit of muddying the waters. 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" or "soft" or "semi" or "emerging" realignment. However, I would return to the above quotation from Robin Kolodny. Adding qualifiers like these strikes me as the sort of thing we do when a theory is losing its explanatory power. It's as if election analysts are adding realignment epicycles waiting for a Copernican Revolution.

Maybe this is a sign that it's time to move beyond realignment as a definitive category. After all, at various times I've heard arguments that the elections of 1948, 1956, 1968, 1974, 1980, 1992, 1994, 2002, 2006, and now 2008 were in some sense "realigning." That's 10 potential realignments in the last 31 cycles. I'm left wondering if the country has ever been aligned so that it can then realign!

None of this is to claim that the GOP isn't in trouble. Realignment or not, it is. The Republicans must find a way to appeal to the voters that it has lost. That's going to be a major challenge. Now that it is in the minority, much will depend on how Obama and the Democrats govern. If they govern to the public's satisfaction - the GOP will be in the minority for a while. If the Democrats fail to satisfy the public - the GOP's return may be speedier.