Reagan Did NOT Win A Realigning Election In 1980

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Oct 11, 2009 at 08:30

The problem of tossing around the notion of Reagan winning a realigning election popped up again this week in the discussion thread of Chris's Monday diary, "Wall Street Bailout Thwarting Democratic Realignment", and so I decided it was time to take another solid whack at it, something to bookmark, perhaps.  Which is why I'm going to give you some picture first, and then explain what they mean.

First, here's Reagan's election in 1980, along with averages of Democratic House share for 6 elections before that, and six elections from 1980 on.  You will note that there is very little difference between the averages.

Next, here's the same thing, with Nixon's election in 1968--the de-aligning election that kicked off the Sixth Party System, the only party system in which divided government is the rule, not the exception.  You will note that again there is very little difference between the averages:

Finally, here's an example of what a true realigning election looks like--in fact, the weakest example of one using this particular tool.  The difference between averages is just over eleven points (for other realigning elections it's roughly 20-25 points):

That's step one in the demonstration to be explained below, showing quite clearly that Reagan did not win a realigning election.

All is revealed on the flip....

Paul Rosenberg :: Reagan Did NOT Win A Realigning Election In 1980
One reason this is such a persistent political myth--aside from the rightwing deification of Reagan-is that people toss around the term "realignment" without any sort of rigorous thinking about it.  One could say the same thing about me, of course.  There's a whole lot of literature on the subject, and I've only read a tiny sliver.  But I have what I think is a soundly defensible position: (a) whatever the micro-level and meso-level processes you want to focus on, the macro-political beast exhibits certain patterns that are decisive in terms of who governs, and (b) those patterns can be observed as an integrated whole, in a succession of different party systems.  Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to have problems relating to this sort of organic-whole approach.

Fortunately, there's a couple of metrics we can use that can help us sort through past elections deciding which ones can qualify as realigning.  They don't fully explain how the system functions as a whole, they simply work as good "rule of thumb" heuristic guides.  But first, there's another rule of thumb to consider: Has one of the major parties collapsed?  If so, you're at the end of a party system.  Collapse may be somewhat spread out, of course, and marking a new era could be somewhat arbitrary, but my preferred candidate would be the first election of the next two-term President.  Those two occasions were the elections of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.  Since both men put their stamp on their own age, it seems like a pretty good rough cut, I'd say. Plus, in the case of Lincoln we can also use the metrics I'm about to introduce.

First the basic rationale:  One wants the most comprehensive and sensible metrics possible.  This immediately eliminates the Senate, as (a) only 1/3 is up for election at any one time, and (b) direct election started so recently that it eliminates roughly half our data.  So that leaves us with House and Presidential elections.  For both, we would like a metric that compares before and after a given election to tell us clearly: Realigning, or Not?  Therefore it should measure levels of control.  I have not run any sort of extensive test, so I can't claim that the following is the best, but it is a pair of metrics designed to give the largest pre-realignment measurement that can fit before 1800--the first realigning election.  For the House--as already seen in my previous diary, "2010 Election Prospects & Strategic Organizing -- Part II: The Realignment Perspective ", we compare average Democratic House percentage (number of seats) for 6 elections before the potential realigning election to the next 6 elections (the one coinciding with the realigning presidential election, and the next five.)  For the presidency, we take the last three elections before the potential realigning election and compare them to the three elections after the re-election of the President elected in the potential realigning election.  We ask how many presidential elections were won by candidates of the same party--before and after.

The House results you've already seen at the top of the diary.  It shows quite clearly that Reagan's election had very little impact on the makeup of the House.  But what about the Presidency metric?

Using this metric we get the following:

President/        Same Party President in
Election          3 Prior Elections   Next 3 Elections
                                    After Re-election
Jefferson 1800	           0                  3
Lincoln 1860               0                  3
McKinnley 1896             1                  3
FDR 1932                   0                  3
Nixon 1968                 1                  2
Reagan 1980                2                  1

All the realigning elections have 3 presidents of the same party elected after the first president's re-election.  If we included Jackson, however (for whom the first total is ill-defined), we would have one realigning election with only two presidents of the same party elected afterwards--no better than Nixon.  The first metric, the House balance shift, however, remains negligible for both Nixon and Reagan.  Their initial victories clearly aren't comparable to any identifiable realigning elections.

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Huge Impact in Senate in 1980 Election (0.00 / 0)
Republicans gained 12 seats and had a 53-46 majority after the election. Liberals that lost in that election included Frank Church, Jacob Javits, Gaylord Nelson, Warren Magnuson, and George McGovern.  

More detail at:,_1980

I have heard it said that a lot of our current Democratic elected politicians came away from the 1980 election feeling that being a liberal was now dangerous to getting re-elected.  Makes a lot of sense to me.  

I basically agree that the House of Representatives is the most important way to look at whether an election was a realignment.  But to exclude all other factors is short-sighted.

True, But Not Realignment (4.00 / 1)
The main story here (aside from the Reagan/Bush deal with Iran to not release the hostages) was a stealth conservative PAC campaign that hit late and unexpectedly.  But the pre-conditions for this did not come from liberal policies--the number one precondition was the Iranian hostage crisis, which was blowback for conservative policies (Truman nixed overthrowing Mosadegh, Eisenhower/Dulles jumped right in) and Jimmy Cartre foolishly taking Henry Kissinger's advice to let the Shah come to America for medical treatment (because there were no hospitals in Europe.)

So a number of liberal senators paid the price for conservative policies.

But what happened after that?  A big reason why the Senate isn't a good indicator for realignment is that it takes 6 years for everyone to come up for a vote.  In the House, it's just 2 years.  The Seantorial equivalent of the "swing back" election doesn't come until 6 years later.  But by the time that that happened, in 1986, the Democrats reclaimed the Senate--even though the GOP managed to keep Iran/Contra off the press radar until after the election.

So much for Reagan realigning the Senate.

One more thing: a key factor in the Dems retaking the Senate was Jesse Jackson's massive voter registration work, much of it in the South.  Which meant grassroots progressives working their asses off to elect mostly moderate or conservative Democrats--the same sorts who support the kinds of policies that cost some liberal Senators their seats in 1980.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
This is good work Paul (4.00 / 1)
House election cycles work as designed. They reflect the shifting mood of the people.

Senate and Presidential elections were meant to be a bit more above the shifting moods and that makes tracking them as a reflection both a bit tougher and at the same time, perhaps they can show the more long-term outlook of the people. The questions is how to properly measure that and I'm guessing the answer is percentage of the vote rather than, or perhaps in conjunction with, cycles of control.

The "Reagan Revolution" and the "Gingrich Revolution" are products of a well honed media machine. Shrub's "mandate" was nothing more than a wild assed claim to something that didn't in fact exist. I think Republicans knew they were maxed out on their appeal to the American people so they claimed a realignment and mandate that did not really exist.

If you look at the 1980 numbers you see that all they did was bring the House back to where it was prior to Watergate. Democrats enjoyed a brief anti-Watergate surge in elections and 3 cycle later it was gone. But gone means it left Democrats holding their solid 55.6% majority in the House. Hardly a Conservative revolution.

At the same time it must be acknowledged that from 1980 to 2006 Republicans were at high tide and largely set the agenda for the national conversation.

I would argue that the New Deal, the 5th party system, largely ended with the 1968 elections; that the period from 1968 to 2004 was an interregnum; and that we are too early in see whether 2006-2008 was a true realignment and beginning of a 6th party system or not. I certainly hope it is and if Obama and Congress get their act together it most certainly can be a realignment of the sort FDR brought in.

But back to percentages... these charts so clearly the dominance of Democratic House control since FDR. Given Republican control of the agenda since 1980 you would think the percentages of chamber control and the percentages of votes for R's vs. D's at all 3 levels would reflect a HUGE Republican dominance of the political scene.

But they don't.

Republicans gained majority control at various times but by slim majorities they used effectively as if they were large majorities. Democrats meanwhile of mostly enjoyed just below 50% to greatly above 50% of the vote through most of these years. This can be seen in Senate and Presidential elections and show a much more solid liberal bent to the country then the village elites would have us believe.

Since FDR:

When Democrats dominate this country they truly dominate.

When Republicans dominate they are barely squeaking out a majority.

When Democrats are out of power they still maintain the support of almost half the country.

When Republicans are out of power they shrink to nearly third party status.

[ Parent ]
One More Thing (0.00 / 0)
We're largely in agreement, though I argue that 1968-2009 marks a distinct Sixth Party Sytem that's characterized by divided government.

This state is ideal for insider politics, and I'd argue that (a) far and away the vast majority of GOP power has been exercised in this manner, and (b) this has happened because they reflect economic elite interests, (c) creating an alliance of convenience with pseudo populist rightwing movements.

These are the factors that have worked against government reflecting a true majority of public opinion.

But I was a long time in coming to this view, seeing the Sixth Party System as something distinct.  I pretty much saw things like you do before I fully absorbed Cochrane's book, Democracy Heading South, which I mention in an earlier diary.  The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that it made sense to see the post-1968 era as a distinct, if highly anomalous, party system of its own.

Furthermore, Walter Dean Burnham argued way back in 1970 that the process of party decomposition had begun in the 1890s, and continued ever since, making the post-1968 period something that had been a long time coming.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
'68 - '06 certainly marks (4.00 / 1)
it's own distinct period. I guess it is just a matter of degrees whether one calls it a distinct "party system" or not.

The reason I don't give that period such a clear designation is the continued Democratic dominance throughout it. What changed was less electoral in nature then it was media, and as you correctly point out, elite-corporate, dominance of the national conversation.

This resulted in a national story line that hyped the "Reagan Revolution" and America as a "Conservative Center-Right" nation which the data simply does not support.

I personally view it as a devolution into a confused mess whereas the New Deal marks a very clear and distinct change.

But that is just getting into degrees of distinction. I can certainly understand an argument that marks the past few decades as their own party system.

I haven't read Cochrane's book. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll look it up.



[ Parent ]
It was a realignment (0.00 / 0)
Just look at some of the 1980 Senate races.  Republicans were electing Senators in places like Georgia and Alabama  for the first time since Reconstruction, and soon after that, those states became pretty much off limits to Democrats.  The whole way political conversation changed in the 1980 election.  Before 1980, most voters supported a bigger, more active government.  

[ Parent ]
Sigh! (2.00 / 2)
It's not just that you're wrong:
    [a]) Support for government spending actually reached its low point in 1980, and increased steadily throughout the 1980s.

    [b] The Dems had been losing their hold on the South since at least 1948, with the Dixiecrat revolt.

    [c] All 4 Southern Senate seats the Dems lost in 1980, they won back in 1986--a clear indication that 1980 was part of longer realignment trend in Southern politics with lots of ebb and flow, rather than one decisive turning point.

It's that this isn't even a serious argument.

To make a serious argument, you can't just cite things willy-nilly as evidence, which may or may not also show up during genuine realignments.  You have to look at all the clear examples of realignment, and come up with a list of common criteria that in some fashion describe realigning elections and no other ones.  If you want to dispute my criteria, fine.  Come up with your own set, and present an argument about why it's better, and then use those criteria to argue that 1980 is a realigning election.

And, among other things, you're going to have to explain why the two metrics that I propose ought to be disregarded.

If you're going to make I serious argument, I'll be happy to debate you.  But this sort of argument by assertion is just a joke.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
They again lost those four Senate seats (0.00 / 0)
Two of them in 1992, one through a party switch in 1995, and another in 2004.  Also, look at the House.  Republicans gained 35 seats in 1980 and lost just 26 in 1982, in the trough of the recession.  That would be equivalent to Democrats losing just 16 House seats in 2010, something that I think we would all take and run with at this point.  Republicans also gained a seat in the Senate in 1982.  All of this shows that 1980 WAS a realignment, although not as much as 1932.  

[ Parent ]
Pattern (4.00 / 2)
The way the 1968-2008 period went, especially between 1968 and 1992 was that Republicans mostly won the Presidency, Democrats always won the House, and the Senate swung frequently back and forth.

It was Nixon who induced the tie, not Reagan (with a combination of the Southern Strategy on one side and Watergate on the other).  Watergate gave the Democrats 49 House seats semi-permanently and a Presidential win in 1976.  The only Dem win at the Presidential level in six tries.

Reagan, in reality was nowhere near the towering figure that Republicans make him.  He left office with a much lower approval rating than Bill Clinton had in 2000.  Yes, he reduced taxes but he also raised them.

The result in Presidential elections pre-and post 1968 in the south is astounding.  Democrats had won 20 of the previous 22 Presidential elections in the South following the corrupt bargain/ election steal of 1876 (Al Smith and Eisenhower's second term being the exceptions).  Since then, Republicans have won 10 of 11 (Jimmy Carter's regional pride of 1976 being the excwption).

The data supports Paul's theory.

[ Parent ]
Focusing on just Presidential elections (0.00 / 0)
Is a huge mistake when talking about realignments.  You have to look at House seats and to a lessor extent, state legislative seats.

[ Parent ]
Can You READ??? (4.00 / 1)
David's comments about presidential elections was limited to results in the South and was focused on rebutting your claim about Reagan being so special.  As such it was perfectly appropriate.  You're the one who is totally confused over what you're talking about.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
You Just Don't Get It (4.00 / 1)
You can't simply cite a bunch of selectively hand-picked facts and conclude that this proves anything, no matter what subject is being debated.  (They teach this in basic college writing classes, even if they no longer teach it in some high schools.)  And you certainly can't use this "strategy" to "prove" that 1980 was a realignment.

Beyond that fundamental point, I can break it down into specifics:

First off, everyone KNOWS that the GOP gained a tremendous amount of ground in the South from 1944 to date. But it doesn't follow from that that any one election played a decisive role in that process.  You have to prove any such assertion by some sort of comparative analysis.

Second, it doesn't really matter what happened to those Senate seats in later elections, so far as arguments about 1980 go.  The fact that there was a long-term trend away from the Democrats undercuts the argument that 1980 was special, it doesn't support it.

Third, this whole argument is moot, since there simply aren't enough realigning elections with senators popularly elected to create any sort of meaningful benchmark.

Fourth, even if there were enough realigning elections to create a benchmark, it would be highly suspect, since only 1/3 of the seats are up for election in any one cycle.

Fifth, your argument about House seats--such as it is--is totally bogus.  I've already presented my metric, showing that 1980 was very similar to 1968, and not similar to any true realigning election.  You haven't even bothered to try to (a) show why there's something wrong with my metric, (b) formally explain what your metric even is, or (c) construct an argument about why your unexplained metric is better than mine.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
1968 was completely different than 1980 (0.00 / 0)
In 1968, Republicans gained almost nothing downballot(four in the House and five in the Senate) and then went on to lose all of those gains and more in 1970.  

In 1980, Reagan saw Republicans make huge downballot gains(35 in the House, 12 in the Senate, and about 300 state legislative seats).  Republicans generally maintained all of these gains through the 1980's with the exception of the Senate(which took them until 1986 to lose).  The only other time a President made big gains downballot in his first Presidential election and MAINTAINED most of them throughout his tenure in office was FDR in the 1930's.  

[ Parent ]
This Is Simply False (0.00 / 0)
As noted repeatedly, senators weren't popularly elected throughout most of the period when realigning elections have happened.  But Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln all won substantial House majorities, which were maintained even beyond their terms in office. McKinley did not, but that's largely because the GOP had won TWO wave elections--in 1892 and 1894--before McKinley ran, and the new GOP incumbents suffered a counter-wave as the Panic or 1893 continued to take a political toll.  (This is why one really has to regard the two consecutive House wave elections as crucial to a realignment.  They occur every time, though the timing varies.)

Compared to this, Reagan's record was anemic. His House gains merely returned the Republicans to the pre-Watergate level of 1972, nowhere close to a majority, and they quickly lost most of that.  Just as they lost his Senate majority by the time that the 1980 crop was up for re-election.

The significance of 1968, as I've said many times, is not that it's a realigning election--it isn't.  It's a de-aligning election.  Nixon won the presidency without the House or Senate, and began a 40-year period in which divided government was the rule for the first extended period in US history. De-alignment was what Nixon brought, and that became the standard structure of government over the next 40 years.  Only Carter, Clinton's first 2 years, Bush's first 5 months (till Jeffords left the GOP) and Bush's middle 4 years were not divided government--a total period of just under 10 1/2 years out of 40.  Thus, it was Nixon whose 1968 election established the basic pattern of government that dominated the entire party system that followed.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
re: maintained gains (0.00 / 0)
In 1980, Reagan saw Republicans make huge downballot gains(35 in the House, 12 in the Senate, and about 300 state legislative seats).  Republicans generally maintained all of these gains through the 1980's with the exception of the Senate

you say republicrats maintained all 3 (house, senate, state) except the senate

so you claim they maintained their house gains



[ Parent ]
More recently... (0.00 / 0)
...the Democratic average during the six Congresses prior to the current (111th) is 49%. Like all things Republican, I think their 1980 realignment just took longer. It had to wait for four of Clinton's Congresses to really drag the Democrat's average down. But finally, during Clinton, they achieved it. It's clear that the southern strategy re-alignment that's credited to Reagan, that started with Nixon in the early 70s, was a huge success for the Republicans. It continues to serve them fabulously, whatever their electoral fortunes over the next six cycles.

Why The Refusal To Think Clearly? (2.00 / 2)
. Like all things Republican, I think their 1980 realignment just took longer.

First off, assuming everything else, just for the sake of argument, why "their 1980 realignment" instead of "their 1968 realignment"?

Secondly, a true realignment leads to long-term dominance, not just hanging on by the fingernails for 6 years, which is what the GOP did from 2001 to 2006.

Just give me one metric to show that the post-1980 GOP has been like the post-1800, post-1828 or post-1932 Dems or the post-1860 GOP.  Just one metric.

Thirdly, everyone else seems to realize that white South is the GOP's booby prize.  When will you?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Nice booby prize (4.00 / 1)
I think the Republicans are in it for the money, not long term dominance. I think what they did from Reagan through Bush II was a realignment for their ultimate goal: increase of wealth for white rich people. As long as they dominate in terms of wealth, they dominate anyway. From FDR through Carter, their wealth was in jeopardy. Reagan got it back for them; and it looks like it's going to be a long, long time before that table tilts again.

[ Parent ]
100 percent correct (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]

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