Realignment Elections

While Matt Yglesias is right that talk about "Realignment" after a single election is ridiculous, there have indeed been realigning elections in U.S. history.

Matt Yglesias argues that “There’s No Such Thing as a Realignment.”

What you really need to do with realignment-mongering pundits is suggest they read David Mayhew’s Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre in which he persuasively argues that there’s no meaningful “realignment” phenomenon. There’s a good short summary here if you’re interested. To give my own summary, Mayhew’s point is that there’s no dichotomy between two “kinds” of elections. There’s just a lot of elections. Some are more important than others, especially in retrospect. Sometimes a party wins a bunch of elections in a row. Sometimes a voting bloc switches partisan loyalties on an enduring basis. But there’s no “pattern” in which these things all go together. Stuff just happens. Partisan majorities are usually fleeting.

Not only do I reject this thesis, so does David Mayhew.  To see this, read the short summary that Matt links.

  1. Some elections are realigning and others are not: The attempt to dichotomize elections between critical and non-critical ones is flawed. Rather than thinking about partisan change in terms of peaks followed by long periods of stasis, we should think about change as a mixture of large, medium, and small effects. In other words, a gradual change model is better than a punctuated equilibrium model.
  2. Periodicity: The “30-year pattern” seems very dubious. If the critical/non-critical dichotomy is invalid, then so is the periodicity hypothesis.
  3. Tension and flash points model: The realignment model of a gradual build-up of tension that then triggers a major shift at a critical election is flawed. The realignment model looks too far back in history to explain shifts in party ID, which can often be better explained by proximate events.
  4. Concern and turnout are higher at realigning elections: Seems modestly accurate for 1860 and 1896, but not 1932.
  5. The emergence of a new cleavage causes a realignment: Not necessarily; events may do a better job of explaining changes in voter attachments.
  6. Ideological polarization is associated with realignment: No, the realigning elections (1860, 1896, 1932) don’t all seem to be accompanied by ideological polarization, particularly 1932.
  7. Realigning elections are national; non-realigning ones are local: Empirically, this doesn’t seem to be so clear.
  8. Realignment leads to major policy changes: Seems to be true for 1860s and 1930s, but not the 1890s.
  9. Realignments are about redistribution: Seems to be true of 1860s and 1930s, but not the 1890s.
  10. Major contributions to the political system are made about once a generation: No, political parties respond to changing preferences on an on-going basis.
  11. The 1896 election ushered in an era of business dominance: Probably not. Business was already doing fine before 1896 and appears not to have needed insulation.

Basically, Mayhew argues that single elections in which a party wins a lot of seats may or may not usher in a realignment.  Which is true!

But there have certainly been realignments.  The Election of 1860 killed off the Whig Party and ushered in the dominance of the Republican and Democrat two-party system.  The Election of 1932 created a Democratic majority that lasted more than a generation and seems to have permanently realigned the African American vote away from the GOP. They fundamentally changed the debate in a way that persisted over time.

Now, it’s true that “Realignment” is a bit difficult to define.  But the fact that “Some are more important than others, especially in retrospect. Sometimes a party wins a bunch of elections in a row. Sometimes a voting bloc switches partisan loyalties on an enduring basis” pretty much covers the basic idea.

But, while one election can start a realignment, we have to look at longer patterns to identify them.  For example, the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 sure looked like a realignment.  It was short-lived.  And I think today’s elections are likely to return us to something close to our natural center, reversing two anti-Bush elections.

Realignments are rare. But they exist.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Another Realignment Election is the election of 1894 when Republicans picked up 130 House seats, and that was in a smaller House than we have today

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I wonder how an information model would change the way we look at changes in political party affilliation and alignment. I note in passing that while the Tea Party movement had Rick Santelli’s rant as its inspiration its beginnings were online.

    My offhand guess is that as the cost and speed of transmitting information goes down that affiliation and alignment will be more fluid.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    I cannot imagine by any shape or substance that 1856 to 1860 was not a realignment election. In fact, I would argue that the war was caused by realignment. The Republicans had formed a coalition, that with demographic trends foreseeable at the time, would largely render the South irrelevant.

  4. Chrome says:

    Election 1860 — Abraham Lincoln
    Election 1932 — F.D.R.

    Election 1994 ( midterm ) — Clinton
    Election 2010 ( midterm ) Obama

    My reason in pointing this out is twofold.
    1. It may not just be the election. But the leader selected. Lincoln and F.D.R are truly outstanding. They basically took what they got in that “wave” and did something with it.

    Clinton wasn’t as bad as many say. But truthfully, he wasn’t incredible either. Regardless, why would he use that wave? It wasn’t his party’s wave.

    2010 can’t be a wave no matter how ‘transformational” Obama is, because Obama won’t use it. He detests it.

    2. The first two WERE presidential elections, not midterms.
    I think the only way for a mid-term to become a “realignment” is if it significantly BOOSTS the Presidential party control.

    i.e. Imagine the numbers reversing here. Democrats picking up 6-8 Senate seats and another 50+ house seats.
    We would be talking about Constitutional amendment level majorities.

    So in summation, I believe you need a truly transformational President who has the ability to USE those majorities in a way that brings the people along with them AND it needs to occur at a time in which that individual can use it ( i.e. usually not a mid-term ).

    That doesn’t say this election could NOT be viewed as the START of the realignment.

    Imagine this scenario.
    1. President Obama goes into bunker-mode and basically reacts like Carter did. Ends up one term.
    2. New President is something unique — something that actually DOES unite the populace not further antagonise ( not Palin or Romney, but a Jindal or Brown ).
    3. Mid-terms EXPAND Republican control past the filibuster level
    ( This actually could happen. with the gains now and 2012 being 22-11ish and 2014 being 21-12 the Republicans could easily pick up 5 more seats per cycle and overall only have turned those two cycles into an even split ).

    Or this scenario.
    a ) 2012 Obama is voted out of office
    b ) Republicans gain 11 seats in the senate. But only because all 22 Democrats were voted out of office versus all 11 republicans voted out.
    c ) Democrats take the house back but only because all 438 representatives are voted out of office.

    though most likely would be a third party formed from the moderate Republicans and Moderate Democrats all tired of the constant insults tossed at them by their respective supposed “colleagues”.
    In essence a statement of “you are going to call me a (R/D)INO? Fine. I will leave you damn party and take all my voters with me. Cause when you call ME “brain-dead” ( pete stark ) you call those who vote for me and support me brain-dead. Well my brain-dead voters don’t want to vote for a**-ho***. So they come with me. To join with my fellow INOs to form the INO party.”