The Perils of Democrats’ Euphoria, or Why the 2012 Election Is Not a Realignment

After the 2004 election, commentator Michael Lind wrote:

Karl Rove is an evil political genius, but he is a political genius.  As he hoped, 2004 was a realigning election like 1896…The Democratic Party is not a national party any more.

After the 2008 election, Lind changed his tune:

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States.

So, in the span of 4 short years, the United States apparently experienced a Republican realignment, dismantled that realignment, and created a brand-new Democratic realignment.  And Lind’s take on 2008 was hardly unique. John Judis declared that 2008 was a “radical realignment” that was “predicated on a change in political demography and geography.”

Two years later, in 2010, the “Fourth Republic” was apparently over, and Obama himself was acknowledging the “shellacking” that the Democrats had received.

Notice a pattern? It’s nothing new.  After presidential elections, commentators—especially those on the winning side—often seem to believe that Something Big Is Happening.  It’s not just that the winner won and the loser lost. It’s that the winner won in a transformational way, in a way that will fundamentally reshape politics, in a way that foreshadows one-party dominance.

If anything, the 2004-2010 elections show that such ideas rarely pan out.  And yet, here we are once again in 2012, and the same thing is happening.  2012 is the year of what Ross Douthat called the “Obama realignment” in which “The coalition that Barack Obama put together to win the presidency handily in 2008 looked a lot like the emerging Democratic majority that optimistic liberals had been discerning on the political horizon since the 1990s.” It is the year of what Ruy Texeira and John Halpin call “the return of the Obama coalition,” which “has arguably created a genuine realignment at the national level that could continue to shape American politics for years to come.”

Could such a realignment happen? Possibly.  But it is far, far too early to be confident.

The term “realignment” gets thrown around casually, sometimes suggesting nothing more than “something big is happening.”  But the term has a more precise meaning—indeed, it must have a precise meaning in order for it to mean anything.  A realignment is predicated on three things.  First, there has to be a dramatic and permanent shift in the party coalitions. Second, the shift in coalitions needs to usher in an extended period of party control.  Third, the shift in control needs to bring about a notable shift in policy.  One can see how the “New Deal coalition” approximates this definition, since it ushered in decades of one-party dominance in Congress, particularly in the House, and brought about not only the New Deal but arguably the Great Society.

No such thing has happened since Obama was elected in 2008.  It is true that the demography of the country is changing slowly, and groups that have tended to vote Democratic are becoming more numerous. So the Democratic party coalition has the potential for continuing growth. Will that growth translate into enduring power and policy change?  It certainly didn’t in 2010.  Yes, the 2010 electorate was not the 2012 electorate.  But that’s the point: a realignment doesn’t take midterm elections off.

So what about 2012?  What is most remarkable about 2012 is not its radical change but instead enduring stability—very modest shifts in state outcomes relative to 2008, relative even to 2000. Very modest shifts in House and Senate seat shares.  In terms of policymaking, the 2012 election simply returned the status quo: divided government.  This doesn’t mean that policy won’t get made, and maybe Congress will pass policies that Democrats have favored more than Republicans, such as a tax increase for the wealthy or comprehensive immigration reform.  But nothing about the current configuration of Congress foreshadows a dramatic shift in policy.

In fact, the Democrats shouldn’t be too confident in that permanent majority.  For one, the growth of pro-Democratic constituencies is happening far too slowly to insulate the party from the natural swings that occur because of economic fundamentals.  If there is a recession in 2016, the Republicans will be likely to take back the White House.

Second, the “Obama coalition” may prove to be exactly that: a coalition specific to Obama. When he is no longer at the top of the ticket, will groups like Latinos and African-Americans turn out in such numbers, and with such strong support for the Democratic candidate? At a University of Denver election panel last week, political scientist Matt Barreto noted that 79% of African-American are “very enthusiastic” about the Democratic Party now, but only 47% say they will be after Obama’s presidency ends (see slide 18).  It’s unlikely that African-Americans are going to vote for a Republican candidate in large numbers, but will they turn out in such high numbers for whichever Democrat wants to succeed Obama?

Moreover, it is entirely possible that Republicans can make inroads into this coalition.  After all, they don’t need to win 75% of the Latino vote to win a presidential election.  Even 40% might suffice. Consider this, also from Barreto: in a January 2012 Latino Decisions poll, Jeb Bush had a 67% approval rating with Hispanics in Florida, while Romney had a 40% rating and Obama a 60% rating.  Or consider this: in the Latino Decisions exit poll, 31% of Latino voters said they would be more likely to vote for the Republican Party if it supported comprehensive immigration reform.

Am I suggesting that all the Republicans need to do is get behind a path to citizenship and nominate Jeb Bush?  Of course not.  The party faces broader challenges in appealing to a constituency like Latinos, to say nothing of young people, single women, and others.  But these kind of poll numbers should at least give Democrats pause.

The final problem with calling 2012 a “realignment” is that realignments are by their nature lasting, and we simply don’t know—we cannot know—whether the Obama coalition will stick together, whether it can translate into Democratic gains in 2014, and the answers to a host of other questions.  At a minimum, as Ruy Texeira noted in a separate election post-mortem, the answer “depends on whether the Democrats can provide this coalition with what it wants and needs.”  It will also depend on what the Republicans do.  It will depend, even more prosaically, on the rate of economic growth in 2016.

Democrats are excited after last week’s election, and they should be.  It feels good to win, and winners should celebrate.  But talk of realignment reflects a degree of optimism that isn’t warranted.

19 Responses to The Perils of Democrats’ Euphoria, or Why the 2012 Election Is Not a Realignment

  1. zbicyclist November 12, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Current “coalitions” are fragile and seem held together by negative propaganda. Women and Latinos voted for Obama, but that’s partly because Republicans went out of their way to alienate (“rape” and “self-deportation”, for example). Those who oppose gay marriage and those of oppose tax increases for the rich wouldn’t seem to have much in common.

    Holding together coalitions by negative propaganda (a common enemy) is an old trick, but it has limits when the actual threat isn’t as immediate and physical as the Axis powers in the 1940’s.

  2. GeraldY November 12, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Do you think that Republicans are going to keep getting 60% of the white vote?

  3. Greg November 12, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    The fact that the two coalitions are aligned to produce a more Republican electorate in midterms relative to presidential years is itself a new development. I don’t know that I’d call it a realignment per se, but it’s certainly worthy of note.

  4. Sam Popkin November 12, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    Thanks for a valuable post! The post raises a question about demography differences between midterm and presidential electorates.

    How much of the (aggregate) difference in outcomes between presidential and off-year congressional elections is simply the change in proportion of age cohorts as opposed to preference change within cohorts?

  5. will November 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    It’s very unlikely that a party is doomed for all time (and I have no idea why anyone would think so in this era of close elections–no recent election was anything like 1936 or 1972, which obviously did not result in a permanent shutout by any party). But it’s entirely possibly that aspects of a party’s ideology have turned into clear liabilities, and that they will have to be abandoned for future victories. Or at least, party members will perceive this to be true and thus create a permanent policy shift.

    Gay marriage now seems unstoppable. So does Obamacare–but if Romney had won Obamacare would have been repealed and it would be unclear when (if ever) Democrats would muster the votes to try again with health care. A Romney victory would have also put in doubt the future of Medicare, Social Security, etc. (he probably didn’t have the votes to enact the Ryan plan as is, but “the New Deal is over” type chatter could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy). Now these programs are off the hook for the time being, disappointing those who want “entitlement reform”. I think this is why people feel the stakes of elections are so high; that you can always hope to win a future election by tacking hard to the center or just waiting around for something to go wrong isn’t that much solace for the average partisan.

    • Ted November 18, 2012 at 12:33 am #

      Considering that the pro-traditional marriage vote exceeded Romney’s vote totals (significantly in MD and WA) in this election cycle, it would seem a bad idea for the GOP to abandon that platform position, even more so when you consider the current scorecard is 32-4 in favor of traditional marriage in states that have put the issue to the voters.

  6. John Girdwood November 12, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Isn’t it all about parsimony?

    Imagine that 70% of the electorate is aligned in the general presidential election, while 80% is aligned (more regular voters) in the off years. So, let’s say for argument that there are 30% of self-labeled independents (who may be new voters) in the general election year and 20% in the off years. I mean, there may be some “realignment within independents” that does take place, but not for the 70% or 80% that are already aligned. For example, 2012 was the first time one of the parties really advocated Gay Rights. Perhaps voters who are truly concerned with Gay Rights finally see which party represents that specific interest–Democrats. Another example, the Ron Paul faction is still waiting to see which party will admonish drone strikes and preemptive war and return civil liberties–and there’s a lot of evidence that they switch parties (i.e. voted for Obama after Ron Paul was out of the race).

    This analysis could help determine new coalition strength, because it would account for the independents in the last election that became aligned. Of course, it would also be necessary to see if any Democrats left the party because of the advocating for Gay Rights, etc. too. Great post.

  7. Barry November 12, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Another way to put it is that pundits are generally BS and hype artists.

  8. Nicholas Warino November 12, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

    I basically agree with this post.

    I do think it’s possible that the Democrats may have a structural advantage in presidential elections, due to demographics (existing and trending) and a possible EC advantage due to those demographics (their coalition seems more efficiently spread across states, while the GOP seems to be running up their margins in the south, ozarks, midwest, and big sky). One worrying thing for Republicans in 2016, 2020, and maybe beyond is that the Democratic advantage among all non-white-males is held roughly constant or even improves (maybe the GOP can make some gains among hispanics and black turnout will drop a bit, but this might be offset by a younger and browner electorate overall), but that the Democrats can improve a bit among white voters. It seems possible that Obama, due to his race and “otherness” may be losing more white voters than he is gaining non-white voters. If that’s true, then it will take very favorable fundamentals for Republicans to win the presidency in the near future. This will be multiplied if the Democrats get credit for the likely economic recovery that will occur over the next four (a smaller version of what happened after the great depression). Imagine Hillary running in 2016…she’ll surely improve among white voters and probably among women overall. I don’t see why Hispanics, Asians, and young voters would be particularly worse (Hillary did do better among Hispanics in the primaries). Would she do substantially worse among black voters, who have been strongly Democratic for decades now? Turnout may drop off, but it may not…maybe this new black voters are more likely to continue voting now that they are registered and have already done it?

    Of course, this is partially offset by the Republicans structural advantage in midterms–the demographics are more favorable for them and they were lucky to make huge gains in 2010, giving them very favorable gerrymandering.

    If this pattern roughly holds (Democrats do well in presidential elections and the GOP does well in midterms), and the parties remain polarized, it seems like governing will be rather hard for the foreseeable future.

  9. rlochow November 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    I don’t think the very loose aggregation of voters who have reelected Obama can be regarded as a force capable of creating a “realignment.” Even if they can be, I see their association as terribly tenuous. To choose only one example: If Obama wants to hold on to his fragile majority, he’d better stop alienating the Left, many of whom held their noses very hard to support him this time. And I don’t think he will stop.

  10. Trevor Joyce November 12, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    In terms of its indictment of over-enthusiastic pundits who tend to proclaim a realignment every 2-4 years, I would agree with this argument. But I think it overestimates the importance of a realignment’s consistency throughout midterm elections, and ignores some key historical examples. Electoral realignments often suffer some initial blowback in midterm elections, and if a dominant party loses seats in these elections, it doesn’t necessarily render a broader, more long-term realignment null and void. For example, look at the emergence of the New Deal and “Reagan Democrat” coalitions in the 30’s and 80’s, two of the most notable realignments of the past century. These were undeniably seismic shifts in the American electorate, dictating policy for the next three decades. However, they were characterized by setbacks in following midterm elections – which the article would have you believe is indicative only of a short-term electoral change. In 1938, after the recession of 1937 and public dissatisfaction with New Deal programs and FDR’s court-packing agenda, Democrats lost a huge 72 seats in the House. In 1982, after Reagan’s landslide victory over Jimmy Carter, Republicans lost nearly all of the gains they made in the House (27 seats) and they saw an emboldened Democratic majority. Despite these setbacks, both of these were long-term realignments that fundamentally changed the philosophy and policy of the government for roughly 30 years after. The argument’s biggest mistake is equating midterm elections with general elections, which are nowhere near equivalent in terms of turnout, public attention, etc. As for 2012, I agree that it cannot be called a legitimate long-term realignment just yet. But given that we saw the continuation and solidification of a new coalition of voters, a decisive reelection for an embattled president, big gains for liberal Democrats in the Senate, the passage of liberal state propositions, and, overall, a re-endorsement of the philosophical shift of 2008 (Republican supply-side policies to Keynesian, demand-side “Obamanomics”), I’d say there is a better chance than usual for a real, long-term realignment to take place. One more thing that the article forgets to discuss are the reasons behind coalition shifts; long-term changes in the electorate’s voting record and philosophical outlook are usually prompted by some sort of crisis, almost always economic. The Great Depression, of course, led to the creation of FDR’s lasting coalition, and the supply shocks and ensuing stagflation of the late 70’s led to Reagan’s coalition. (This is one of the reasons why an election like 1994 wasn’t a realignment – it was a more typical result of plain politics.) Given that Obama was elected largely in response to a seismic economic crisis in 2008, I’d say that it’s just one more characteristic of his election (and subsequent re-election) that points in the direction of a realignment. (Even furthermore is the fact that these realignments are often characterized by a changing of national philosophy; laissez-faire market economics in the early 1900’s shifted to proto-Keynesianism under FDR, Keynesianism shifted to supply-side deficit spending under Reagan, Reaganomics shifted to the neo-Keynesian policies under Obama.)

    Caution is admirably advised in this post, but I’d say the Democrats have more than just recent victories to anticipate a more lasting “Obama coalition.”

    • Ted November 18, 2012 at 1:05 am #

      Considering that two of the senate seats the Dems picked up (IN and ND) were won by moderate Dems (conservative by Democrat standards) and one kept her seat (in MO) due to a Republican self-inflicted wound (not to mention the Libertarian senate candidate dooming the GOP in MT), I’d hardly say that liberal Dems had a big day on 11/06.

      People vote for the more likeable person at the Presidential level, it’s nothing really more deep than that. People liked Reagan and he won. People liked Clinton and he won. People liked GWB more than they liked his opponents and he won. Same for Obama in ’08 and ’12. Hopefully the GOP takes this into consideration when chosing a candidate in 2016……..likeability goes a long way in politics.

  11. Paul Martin November 12, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    I concur Trevor Joyce…I concur.

  12. D.Hunnel November 13, 2012 at 4:41 am #

    The majority of the current realignment is in the demographic, and in the “empowerment”. It absolutely helped that the conservative “wackadoodles” (I forget which Republican used that label, but it certainly FITS) seemed to go out of their way to announce themselves quite loudly — sinking down the phylogenetic path, back to ornate signature “calls” and dances and plumage displays evolved to influence mating choices.

    Nicely, the Democrats seem to have an “Aspire!!” thing going on, which does bring out the best in people wanting to “move forward”, while the Republicans (needing some luck re a remaining lack of “awareness of self vs others” on their part) MAY make fumbling attempts at reframing themselves — but are highly likely to miss the whole point of having to internalize any change to make it REAL, and have to fall back upon tried-and-true methods of “demonizing” the “outsider”, the “other”, the “changes being IMPOSED upon us” — all those things that conservatives are SCARED of and therefore rally around…

    Amusingly enough, I forsee future analysts labeling Obama as a “Father figure” for many who didn’t HAVE such a thing: mature… showing tough-love — pushing through some stuff that “hurts” because what’s on the other side is an even BETTER place to be, to work from; even handed… democratic in a context where sometimes being AUTOcratic would be so much simpler — except for the example it provides. Inspiring/aspiring to aspire/inspire, such that while he WILL manage to create some incremental changes with a visible goal in mind, he MAY ALSO manage to foster an “acquired habit” of facing complex problems from a mature and informed position, and facing them from a strongly shared core position with elegant and graceful results.

    I’ve always held to the concept that if someone BELIEVES that vitamin C will prevent colds, don’t ARGUE with that person, GO with it — they have a belief that doesn’t hurt anybody, and who can say, that belief may be what makes it work for them. Same here — I believe that President Obama is inspiring people with a BELIEF that we may just manage to work through this thing and come out the other side with some solid “realignment”, some “transformation” which will inform the REST of our journey toward strength, prosperity, and the future we WANT to leave to our children. Let’s go with it, shelter it, nurture it, share it, benefit from it. “Birth of Fire” background music optional.

  13. John Girdwood November 13, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    to the former, just sayin’, what hurts from taxing the rich a little more (coming from a 99%er)? I mean, couldn’t Obama increase unemployment benefits [from the federal government] IF the unemployed completed 10 hours of community service each week on unemployment in their local community–and if they choose not to do the hours of community service, then the unemployment office would deduct $25 per hour not completed? Seems quintessentially American to me…the TYPE of pragmatic solutions that are indeed needed.

    Perhaps the Republicans are reorganizing, since they couldn’t “explain the math” behind the 2012 solutions (see the Ryan interview).

    But back to the topic, just because the Republicans may be suffering from dealignment (or a palpable increase unhappiness from moderate and Tea Party Republicans–i.e. Tea Party passion replaces moderate republicans in safe districts with Tea Party non-tax increase reps–there is a level of intra-war going on here); however, one party undergoing reorganization does not mean that the election resulted in a realignment.

    On the other hand, Trevor Joyce hit the nail on the head.

  14. Tracy Lightcap November 13, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    The Vodz was right:

    At the next congress, held in 1907 in London, the Bolsheviks proved victorious. This was the first time I saw Lenin in the role of victor. Victory turns the heads of some leaders and makes them haughty and boastful. They begin in most cases to be triumphant, to rest on their laurels. But Lenin did not in the least resemble such leaders. On the contrary, it was precisely after a victory that he became especially vigilant and cautious. I recall that Lenin insistently impressed on the delegates: “The first thing is not to become intoxicated by victory and not to boast; the second thing is to consolidate the victory; the third is to give the enemy the finishing stroke, for he has been beaten, but, by no means crushed.” He poured withering scorn on those delegates who frivolously asserted: “It is all over with the Mensheviks now.” He had no difficulty in showing that the Mensheviks still had roots in the working-class movement, that they had to be fought with skill, and that all overestimation of one’s own strength and, especially, all underestimation of the strength of the enemy had to be avoided.

    Yep. Democrats would be wise to keep Lenin’s example in mind. The Pubs are still a formidable force in our society and will be until their advantages in the House can be overcome. That’ll take a lot of time and effort. We might be in the middle of a realignment, but we won’t know for awhile. As I pointed out to my class today, having an extra 70 years or so to assess these kinds of seismic shifts is pretty handy.

    • Ted November 18, 2012 at 12:50 am #

      Hmmm, making a comparison between Lenin and the current Dems……very telling. And you teach a class this?! 😮

  15. Ron Watson November 25, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Great piece here.

    I’d like to take a crack at what I believe to be the last two realignments: 1980 & 1992.

    Reagan – Unleash the Private Sector
    First, there has to be a dramatic and permanent shift in the party coalitions.
    Enter the Religious Right and the Reagan Democrats. Social Conservatives & middle class Suburbanites standing up to meddlesome Government. They are still here, and are still supporters of the Republican Party. Where are they going to go?

    Second, the shift in coalitions needs to usher in an extended period of party control.
    I believe that the Republicans have had quite a bit more control and seeing as how today’s serious democrats tend to look like a lot more like George I than Michael Dukakis, I’d say that bolsters the idea that the Republican Party was in control since that time.

    Third, the shift in control needs to bring about a notable shift in policy.
    Smaller Government is Good. Lower Taxes. GDP as health of nation. Deregulate capital. This is our reality today.

    Reagan ushered in a transformational change in our political system. It brought the needs of the Board Room to our kitchen table.

    Clinton – The People’s Business
    First, there has to be a dramatic and permanent shift in the party coalitions.
    Enter corporate sponsorship. Rush to the “Center”. Swing Voter. Coalitions become us + Independents vs them. Scorched earth ensues.

    Second, the shift in coalitions needs to usher in an extended period of party control.
    While the Democrats didn’t maintain significant control, the corporate sponsors sure have. Bill Clinton gave us the “Business of Government”, and business is booming. Democrats and Republicans have been captured by corporate sponsors – ideologically and practically. Grow or Die is the party platform.

    Third, the shift in control needs to bring about a notable shift in policy.
    Everything as ROI. The US Post Office should be profitable? Did anybody mention healthy American citizens or public health in the health care debate?

    Government operates in the now and the now is created by corporate. There is no long term vision. There is no attention paid to the past. It’s quarterly profits. Grow or Die, and the die is cast.

    We are still operating in this “People’s Business” framework with Obama. I do not believe that the parties are in charge at all. I think that corporate sponsors are running the whole shebang. Thinktank, PR Firm, pundit, news stories, elections, lobbying, legislation. Is there anything that is not corporate sponsored in elected government today?

    Hey man, thanks for the thoughtful piece, John.

  16. ottovbvs November 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    It certainly looks to me like a coalition that could be around for a while in the context of presidential elections. Drawing comparisons with off years is largely irrelevant given turnout fell by 40% between 2008 and 2010. It’s very obvious the max vote the Republicans can turn out is around 60 million. We’ve now had three successive elections where Republicans have turned out around 60 million. If turnout is north of 122 million the Democrats are going to win given the make up the electoral college. Unless hispanics are suffering from Amnesia they are in the Democratic camp for a generation. Even if Republicans cooperate in immigration reform (a huge if) the Democrats will get all the credit and there will always be plenty of Brewers around to compensate for the token hispanics like Rubio and remind hispanics of Republican nativism. Sides also seems to have lost sight of two salient facts. Obama is the first Democratic president since FDR to win two consecutive elections with a majority of the popular vote and he’s also the first president in modern times to win the presidency without the south. VA and FL were a bonus, he could have won without them, and in any case both show signs of drifting blue. And none of this is taking place in a vacuum. At the same time Republicans strengthened their hold on the statehouses and governorships of the old confederacy thus ensuring extremist economic and social policies are going to remain central planks of Republicanism for a long time to come. They’re not there yet, but the GOP is on the edge of becoming a regional party rather as the Dems were regionally dominant in the south but without the benefit of conservative allies in the North. Fundamentally today’s GOP is, as someone has pointed out, an alliance between the plutocrats and the preachers with a few opportunists along for the ride. It’s not a combo with long term national appeal.