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Sean Trende’s Realignment of Electoral Analysis

About ten years ago a friend and fellow political junkie told me about a new political aggregator website called Real Clear Politics, which had become popular among his colleagues and friends in academia with an interest in American politics.  I quickly became a regular visitor and big fan of the site. RCP not only links to the mainstream media and political sites from the left and right, they also employ a group of writers and journalists who produce original pieces using solid political science methodology presented in clear, easy-to understand language.  The original work has always been top-notch compared to the MSM and partisan shouting one often encounters on-line. 

In 2008 Nate Silver, a political and baseball junkie with a gift for statistics and polling started a left-wing version of RCP named FiveThirtyEight, which was later re-launched under the New York Times website in 2010.  RCP and FiveThirtyEight link to political news, as well as providing original research and analysis for political junkies.  However the key difference between the two sites remains the ideological perspective.  Silver originally wrote for the Daily Kos, while contributors to RCP typically have backgrounds that are more conservative or libertarian.

In much the same way that RCP and FiveThirtyEight use modern statistical methods to provide legitimacy to work, there was a recent explosion in political science books claiming that the 2008 election of President Obama was part of the long-term ascendency of the Democrats in a partisan “realignment” based on the party systems work of Walter Dean Burnham and others.  Authors such as former Clinton campaign head James Carville, John Judis, who regularly writes for the New Republic, and Roy Teixeira all wrote extensively using statistical research about what they argued was a long-term partisan shift in favor of progressive left-wing politics throughout the nation.

Sean Trende is RCP’s senior elections analyst, and his new book The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government is Up for Grabs – and Who Will Take It is, at least partially, a refutation of the idea that the Democratic Party can expect a lengthy period of electoral dominance in the United States.  However, he also has a broader academic agenda in this ambitious book.  Trende takes aim at the entire cottage industry in political science that studies party realignments.  Furthermore he is making a powerful case that regionally the United States has been misunderstood by many contemporary writers.  This is particularly true, he claims, of the American South.  In addition to all of that (and remember this book is only a little over 200 pages) Trende provides a really good, albeit brief, view of American political history from 1920 to 2001 in the first part of his book.  Mr. Trende should be lauded for his ambition, although the book often feels crowded and a bit uneven as a result.

First let me say bluntly that I agree with the broad claims that the author is making here concerning the rising Democratic majority and the fundamental flaws in realignment theory.  It may be that he should have written three separate books, but that doesn’t change the fact that the general claims he makes are correct.  I’ll address his three stated goals in the book starting with his political history.

Realignment theory claims that every 40 or years (give or take an election) we see a “critical” or “realigning” election that gives rise to a dominant political coalition housed under the umbrella of one of the two major American parties.  This party wins most of the national, state, and local elections during its reign.  However coalitions fray and after a lengthy period of power a new coalition emerges after another critical election.

Realignment theory holds that 1860, 1896, and 1932 were the three most recent critical elections that produced lasting coalitions.  In his political history, Trende argues that none of these elections really gave birth to lasting political dominance for either party.  In the case of the famous “New Deal” coalition, Trende argues that by 1938 the rise of suburban America combined with the inherent tension in the Democratic Party between blacks and Southern whites had doomed FDR’s electoral roadmap.

Instead he argues that by the 1940’s we see in place an “Eisenhower” coalition that was based in suburban American and among many, but not all, Southern whites.  These voters were largely incrementalists and “conservative” as compared the increasing leftward tilt of the Democratic Party.  This group had accepted many of the more popular New Deal policies, such as Social Security and bank deposit insurance, but they also opposed expansions of the welfare state.  As the Democrats moved further left in the 1960’s this gave the Republicans an edge nationally.  As the 80’s rolled around the increasing influence of the Christian Right in the GOP gave the Democrats an opening that Bill Clinton exploited to build a middle-class suburban coalition that was politically more moderate.

This leads to us to his second goal – the refutation of the work arguing for a new Democratic period of dominance.  First off, Trende fundamentally sees the United States as a center-right/center-left country, and he argues, convincingly using survey and long term demographic voting data, that President Obama and the American left badly misread the 2008 election.  He sees the 2010 Congressional races through this lens, but he also notes that Obama actually shrank Clinton’s coalition and has critically lost rural whites in Appalachia, Missouri, and Arkansas.  He also notes that the 2008 election was very much breaking for McCain until the fall of Lehman Brothers, suggesting that Obama’s win was more the result of bad timing rather than a fundamental shift towards the progressive policies of the American Left.

Trende also addresses a key element of the Judis/Teixeira thesis – Latino voters.  Democrats have regularly, and with some justification, claimed that Latino voters represent a huge future block of support.  The conventional wisdom says that as white Americans, who are more likely to support the GOP, become a smaller part of the electorate and the nation becomes more diverse we can expect the Democrats to gain support and maintain power.  Trende notes first that Latinos look and act a lot more like European immigrants in the 20th century, such as the Italians.  Even today, Trende shows, more conservative Latinos support Republicans, and suggests that we should expect that Latinos will eventually take their more conservative social and religious views to the Republicans once they become more economically affluent.  But he also takes a critical look at elections that have historically been used to support the idea of rising Latino political power, most notably Jan Brewer’s gubernatorial race in Arizona, and finds that Latino voting and the so-called “browning” of the Democratic Party involves supporting positions, such as those on immigration, that leads to an offsetting increase in white support for Republicans who oppose open borders.

Regarding realignment theory, Trende has put his finger on a core truth of American politics – factions still matter.  He writes:

Permanent majorities simply do not exist in American politics.  Politics rarely travels in a straight line; contingent events constantly pop-up that alter the country’s trajectory, and different parts of coalitions bump up against each other. (p. 142).

But there is a deeper problem with realignment theory as well.  Academics are profoundly and incorrectly influenced by determinism in the way they approach the social sciences.  It’s nuts to believe that parties have this mechanically determined 40 year window of dominance over the nation’s politics.  Trende shows convincingly that one can point to the emergence of coalitions that fit together and stay together for much shorter periods in which parties can come to expect certain levels of performance regionally or demographically.   But as he also argues quite correctly, once you bring together two groups you can expect the same outcome you’d get from a Liz Taylor wedding – the inevitable break-up.  Groups have different levels of issue salience and potentially issue conflict.  As Trende shows both the GOP and Democratic party have been unable to keep coalitions together for more than a couple of elections in a row, not the 40 year cycles that Burnham and others have forecast.  Issues matter, and voters have competing and different priorities in a nation as diverse as the United States.   The idea that “coalitions of everyone” (p. 158) can stay together defies logic and close analysis.

There are flaws here.  There is a final speculative chapter in which the author tries to unsuccessfully straddle a line between discussing the future implications of his work without making predictions.  It reads about as awkwardly as it sounds.    Additionally his lengthy critique of economic models of elections seems forced and at times a bit contradictory.  There is a large and robust literature in political science showing that economic conditions play a very important role in predicting how likely incumbent presidents are in winning re-election, and as Trende himself notes, this literature is not at odds with his claims about realignment.  Making this chapter more unusual is that Trende claims that it was an economic disaster that led to Obama’s victory and subsequent policy over-reach.  In chapter 5 he notes that after the Lehman collapse Obama finally gained substantial support among white voters, and that McCain was unable to clearly articulate a response after the bankruptcy.

But in sum this is a very good and readable book about recent trends in American politics.  It’s methodologically sound and accessible to readers who are less familiar with statistics and still very interesting to readers with a stronger background in numbers.  Perhaps most importantly Trende is making a fresh contribution to an important conversation in political science between individuals with differing partisan agendas.  For too long there has been the view among academic political scientists that social science research is “neutral.”  This response to the work of left-leaning scholars reminds us that how we view macro-trends in politics often reflects our predispositions and that statistical sophistication is no magic bullet to an objective truth.

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