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Presidential Breakdown

1 Mar 2016
Critical Elections
A few months ago a Democrat friend of mine asked a question, somewhat in shock, about whether we are watching the death of the Republican party. I doubt that we are, but more and more we see signs that a complete realignment of the Republican coalition is taking place. What most Democrats fail to understand is that their party is going through the same thing. Many Sanders supporters understand this because they came from outside the party, but Clinton supporters tend to ignore these warning signs, which could spell doom in November.

Or not. As my statistical hero Nate Silver discusses in this column, we could be undergoing a political realignment of the kind that used to take place every seven or eight elections, but have been less common since the War of Northern Aggression, as my father's South Carolinian forebears called it. Silver calls Trump's success an "existential threat" to the Republican party, but I see it more as an identity crisis. Let's backtrack to see what realignments are all about, then see how they might be in store for us this year.

Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham identified realigning elections as the focal point of American politics in his book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics. As a young student of presidential elections I found his thesis compelling but not terrible applicable to the mid-1970s, when we were clearly overdue for a new realignment (which came, arguably, in 1980). Writing in 1971, Burnham identified these realigning elections --
  • 1800 - The Republican Party of Jefferson takes the White House and holds it for a longer sustained period of time than any other (1801-1829). The Federalists hold on in Congressional and federal judge seats until the administration of James Monroe; the period is known to historians as the first party system, who often refer inaccurately to Democrat-Republicans, a party that never existed. The beginning of the post-Washington era.
  • 1828 - The Democratic Party of Jackson / Van Buren vanquishes the Republicans, who never take the White House again. Dislocated Republicans quickly reorganize as Whigs, who vanish by 1852 after electing only two presidents in the 1840s. The Whigs failed due to a slavery identity crisis; their failure led to the third party system. The beginning of the era of the common man.
  • 1860 - The Republican Party of Lincoln takes power. The entire southern base of the Democratic Party rumps to form the Confederate States of America, meaning that even after the War was over national Democrats would have influence only from the north. The beginning of the post-slavery era.
  • 1896 - The Republican Party under William McKinley rebuilds and reorganizes, strengthening its hold on the nation. This is the first realigning election to strengthen rather than destroy a party. The beginning of the big business era.
  • 1932 - The Democratic Party under Franklin Roosevelt takes charge after the Republicans fail to slow down the worst depression in U.S. history (ironically, the first depression was caused by the first Democrat president, Andrew Jackson, and gave the Whigs their first administration, William Henry Harrison / John Tyler). The beginning of the era of social justice.
These realignments were characterized by massive changes nationally on the local level, not simply the presidential elections. I remember watching the results of the 1980 realigning election in Texas, where third-generation union neighborhoods, operating out of the oil and chemical plants in and around Houston, abruptly shifted to Ronald Reagan and began kicking Democrats out of the state legislature. That process took more than a decade to complete, but now appears to be set in concrete, unless the likes of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders gets the upper hand.

This year we are seeing signs of fracture on both sides. Like previous realigning elections, we can read the writing in the tea leaves; the elections taking place around us are already telling the story, like the 2014 red wave landslide in a previous blue-purple Nevada. In Texas the Reagan landslide was presaged in 1978 by election of the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Bill Clements . I just watched an interview with former New Jersey Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman, who declared she would vote for Democrat Clinton over a Republican Trump - and I read another piece identifying Bernie Sanders supporters who say Trump is their second choice. By some measures they constitute as much as 20% of the Sanders support base.

If you are an unrepentant progressive it may be hard to see the connection between Sanders and Trump, but it is clear they are two sides of the same coin, and this year the coin of the realm is change. In this environment dynasty candidates like Clinton and Bush have no real chance. It is the reason Clinton is a danger to the entire Democratic party. Her complacent candidacy has infected the party, making it vulnerable to attacks on every front, and those attacks will soon be coming on every front.

Let me close with another piece of political science I picked up in college. My poli sci professor, Sam Popkin, was tight with the McGovern campaign, so in 1974 he gave me access to all the datasets from McGovern's 1972 summer polling operation. One finding I will always remember over all others: the overwhelming second choice of George Wallace supporters was Ted Kennedy. It was all about economic populism, a lot of which bled over from Bobby's 1968 campaign.

So if you think Donald Trump is an odd second choice for something like 1/5 of all Sanders voters, you don't know the politics of change - and you will likely be among the very surprised on November 9.

You may also be interested in my blog Who Will challenge Hillary?

You may also like this related article: Who Will Challenge Hillary? (165)
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