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....
|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
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.