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

- November 12, 2012

After the 2004 election, commentator Michael Lind wrote:

bq. 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:

bq. 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.