A staple of modern American politics is the article or column that inevitably follows any landslide election speculating whether this particular victory heralds a national realignment that will reshape politics for decades. It rarely does. Make what you will of the fact that this year's version, by David Kirkpatrick in today's New York Times, appears three weeks before the election, but whatever you think of the timing of this piece, do not overlook the remarkable, must-click graphic that accompanies it.
The chart plots data on the current party identification of Americans compiled from more than 23,000 Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center during 2006. With that many cases, the Pew pollsters were able to tabulate a result for party identification (including independent "leaners") for each birth year and plot the results. What results is a remarkable picture of the politics in play as each age group emerged into adulthood. The most Republican cohorts are those who came of age during the administrations of popular Republicans: Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In contrast, the current crop of 18-24 year olds, according to the Pew Research center data, is the most Democratic leaning group in the population.
The chart provides graphical evidence of the slow rolling realignment that is always at work as new young voters gradually replace their elders. Political scientists generally agree that young people tend to acquire political beliefs, including their partisan attachments, in their 20s. As Kirkpatrick writes, "voters typically develop a party preference based on the political atmosphere at the time they come of age and grow more attached to that party over the course of their lives." Once acquired, a true sense of party changes rarely changes, although some voters are less attached to political parties than others (as I speculated on Friday, some will shift back and forth on surveys depending on the politics of the moment or the wording or context of the survey question).
The gradual shifts toward Democrats since 2005, and the small recent spike I wrote about Friday, are almost certainly not harbingers of some coming realignment. They will likely be as fleeting as the shifts toward the Republicans just prior to the 2004 elections. The bigger question is what these changes portend about the still outcome of the elections next month. The implications for Republicans certainy seem dire, but we will not know for certain until November 8.