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Jerome Karabel Headshot

The Politics of Realignment

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Over the past one hundred years, there have only been two presidential elections that fundamentally changed the course of American politics -- Franklin Roosevelt's victory in 1932, which ushered in a generation of Democratic rule, and Ronald Reagan's triumph in 1980, which marked the beginning of 28 years of Republican dominance of national politics. Though it is far too early to be certain, Barack Obama's victory could well be the third such realigning election in the past century -- one that will be seen by historians as the beginning of an emerging Democratic majority.

To be sure, Obama's six-point victory fell well short of a landslide. But landslides are not necessarily "realigning" elections -- those that change the contours of American politics, giving one party a long-term advantage. Witness Lyndon Johnson in 1964, who won by 23 points over Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon in 1972, who beat McGovern by the same margin; both triumphs were followed just four years later by the opposition party winning the White House.

On the other hand, an election that is not a landslide can nevertheless be a realigning one. The classic example is Ronald Reagan's nine-point victory in 1980, which reconfigured American politics by defining government as "the problem not the solution." For the next quarter of a century, Reagan's free market ideas dominated politics, and battles for the presidency were fought largely on Republican terrain. Bill Clinton himself, the only Democrat to reach the White House between 1980 and 2008, admitted as much when he declared in 1996 that "the era of big government is over." In this sense, Barack Obama was surely right last January when he declared - provoking much controversy in Democratic circles - that "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that... Bill Clinton did not."

Yet it was not fully apparent that 1980 was a realigning election until four years later, when Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale by more than 18 points. So whether 2008 will ultimately be seen as a moment of realignment depends in a good part on what happens during the next four years. Though Barack Obama's historic victory fell short of a landside, it has within it the seeds of a basic realignment of American politics. Far more than merely a response to the Wall Street meltdown, it was also a product of long-term trends favorable to the emergence of a Democratic majority that could dominate American politics over the next quarter century. Six trends, in particular, stand out:

1. Young people flocked to Obama in unprecedented numbers, with those 18 to 29 preferring him to McCain by 66 to 32 percent. This is of great long-term significance because historically realignments have begun with the young, who in their twenties often develop party allegiances that stay with them the rest of their lives. Just as the Democratic loyalty of the generation of that came of age under Franking Roosevelt was integral to the Democratic Party's political dominance through the mid-1960s, so too was the Republican tilt of the Reagan generation crucial to Republican dominance over the past quarter century. And this year was part of a long-term trend towards the Democrats; the last time that a Republic presidential candidate won among 18 to 29 years olds was in 1988, when George H.W. Bush led among them by 5 points.

2. The rapidly growing Hispanic population is shifting decisively to the Democratic Party. Obama carried Hispanics by 66 to 32, a vast improvement over Kerry's 58 to 43 margin. Because of widespread anger among Hispanics about how Republicans have handled the volatile immigration issue, this shift is unlikely to be a one-time affair. The loyalty of Hispanics is probably the decisive political battleground of the future; 12.5 percent of the population in 2000, Hispanics are expected to comprise nearly 20 percent of all Americans by 2020 and over 30 percent by 2050. Especially ominous for the Republican future was the vote among young Hispanics, who preferred Obama by the stunning margin of 76-19.

3. Obama has broken definitively with the long-term pattern of Democratic dependence on states with a declining proportion of the electoral vote. Because of their relatively slow projected growth, such Democratic strongholds as New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Massachusetts are almost certain to lose electoral votes in 2012. In the absence of movement into rapidly growing Red states, this decline would over time have sapped the strength of the Democratic Party. But Obama shattered the Red-Blue divide, winning such rapidly growing states as Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada and running highly competitive races in several other Red states. Of greatest import in the long term, the Democrats have shown that they can compete in every region of the country, including the rapidly growing parts of the South and Mountain West. The same cannot be said of the Republicans in much of New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the Pacific West.

4. What demographers euphemistically call "generational replacement" will gradually erode the Republican base. McCain's greatest strength was among those over 65, among whom he beat Obama by 53 to 45 percent. Over time, however, the ranks of this age group will grow thinner and thinner. And the cohort that follows them, those between 45 to 64 are largely the Baby Boom generation. Despite the conservatizing effects of age, this is not a group the Republicans can count on.

5. Obama did well among the swing voters whom the Democrats need to build a majority coalition, winning 52 percent of "independents" (who now comprise 29 percent of the electorate) and 60 percent of moderates. This compares favorably to Reagan's performance in 1980, when he won 55 percent of independents and only 49 percent of moderates. If these gains among independents and moderates can be sustained in 2012 and beyond, will not solidify a Democratic majority.

6. Republicans have for some time been hemorrhaging support among the college-educated. This trend accelerated in 2008, with Obama winning 53 percent of college graduates. As recently as 1988, Republicans carried college graduates by 13 percent (56-43) -- a pattern that made sense given that Republicans have traditionally enjoyed wide support among middle and upper-middle class voters. But this pattern has been changing for two decades and reached a turning point this year. With college graduates voting far out of proportion to their numbers in the population and now constituting 45 percent of all voters, this is a group that Republicans simply cannot afford to lose.

Together, these six trends suggest that the majority coalition that the Democrats put together in 2008 is likely to strengthen in the years ahead. True, some of the factors contributing to Obama's victory -- the extraordinary unpopularity of the Bush administration, the timing and sheer magnitude of the Wall Street meltdown, and Obama's remarkable persona charisma -- will not be transferable to other Democratic candidates. The roots of Democratic ascendance, however, extend beyond long-term demographic trends to the ideological crisis now facing the Republic Party, which has elevated an anti-government instinct to a matter of fundamental principle. Recent events have not been kind to this world view. For beginning with Hurricane Katrina and extending through the Wall Street debacle, the necessity of effective government as an agent of the common good - the core principle of progressive politics for more than a century -- has become increasingly obvious.

Whether Obama and the Democrats take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to write a new chapter in the history of American progressivism remains to be seen, but the opportunity is there for the taking. If they do, 2008 may look in the long historical view much like 1980 -- a year in which an impressive victory well short of a landslide marked the beginning of a more fundamental realignment of American politics.