Sunday, October 12, 2008

Will 2008 Be a Critical Election?

The idea of a partisan realignment is a key concept in political science.

In electoral politics, a new partisan era is said to have emerged when the coaltions supporting the parties become disrupted and voters realign their allegiances, with a new party becoming the hegemonic party for decades at the presidency and congressional levels.

There's a long line of research on this, but the most compelling account of partisan realigment is found in the notion of a "critical election." In an election contest whereby the political system is facing a fundamental national crisis of catastrophic proportions, voters choose the party out of power and elevate a new, enduring partisan coalition at the levels of the presidency and Congress. The elections of 1860 and 1932 are the key examples. The Republican Party was the dominant party in American politics following Abraham Lincoln's election at the moment of national crisis precipitating the Civil War; and in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in a New Deal realignment that emerged out of the calamity of the Great Depression.

The Wikipedia page on realignments (which features an excellent review of the scholarship) singles out 1932 as classic case of partisan realigment:

Of all the realigning elections, this one musters the most agreement from political scientists and historians; it is the archetypal realigning election. FDR's admirers have argued that New Deal policies, developed in response to the crash of 1929 and the miseries of the Great Depression under Herbert Hoover, represented an entirely new phenomenon in American politics.
There's been little formal discussion of 2008 as a realigment around the blogosphere.

I've seen a few articles here and there, but partisan bloggers are more caught up in the scandal of the moment to reflect on the factors in this year's race that may portend a contest of epochal proportions. Folks say it's a "Democratic year," but the concatenation of events in foreign policy, and especially at home with a finanicial crisis (routinely described as the worst since the 1930s), may well result in a victory for Barack Obama and congressional Democrats on November 4 ushering in a new era of Democratic dominance lasting well into the future.

The truth about realignments, however, is that they are historical artifacts and not recurring political phenomena. The current political era is more appropriately known as a "dealignment system," in which the rise of politically independent voters and shifting electoral coalitions have resulted in neither party holding a long-term lock on both the presidency and Congress on the scale of the GOP from 1860 to 1928 or of the Democrats from 1932 to 1968.

I've contemplated the potential for a Democratic realignment for some time, but because of the success of the surge in Iraq, and the nomination of John McCain as the Republican standard-bearer, circumstances have appeared hopeful that the GOP might retain the White House. Not only that, for true dominance, should the Democrats take the presidency, the party would also need to consolidate their hold on Congress with a 60-plus filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. That possibility has long seemed remote.

Until this last month, that is.

The collapse of Wall Street over the last few weeks indeed repesents the kind of catastrophic event that precipitated previous partisan realignments - in other words, the current crisis, with polls showing highest voter dissatisfaction in American history, may well be the catalyst for historic Democratic victories, including a 60-plus margin in the upper chamber of the Congress.

Stuart Rothenberg made a dramatic argument this week, laying out the possibility for a GOP bloodbath:

It’s obvious to all that the national landscape — and the presidential map — shifted dramatically in the Democrats’ favor during the financial crisis. Americans are more dissatisfied with the present and worried about the future, all of which helps Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Democratic Congressional candidates.

Obama may not be comfortably over the crucial 50 percent mark in polls, but states that McCain hoped to compete in are moving out of reach, while more traditionally Republican states have come into play for Obama. McCain needs to change that dynamic quickly to have any chance of winning.

McCain still has a month to change the focus of the race, and Obama may have peaked too soon. But public concern about the economy isn’t likely to disappear over the next month no matter how much Republicans wish it would.

So far, there is no evidence that Democratic candidates are paying a price for the public’s sour mood, or that the election will be “anti-incumbent.” It is Republican candidates who are feeling the political pain.

The outlook in Senate races continues to deteriorate for Republicans, with Democratic gains at least in the high single digits increasingly likely. Where I once wrote in this space that Democrats had a chance of reaching 60 seats in 2010 (“For Democrats, Time to Pad Senate Majority and Think 60 Seats,” Feb. 12, 2007), I now can’t rule out 60 seats for this November....

Republicans appear to be heading into a disastrous election that will usher in a very bleak period for the party. A new generation of party leaders will have to figure out how to pick up the pieces and make their party relevant after November.

On Thursday, Steven Stark laid out the hypothesis that Rothenberg's "bloodbath" may indeed result in a fundamental transformation of the party coalitions:

Over the past eight years, the reaction of the Bush administration to both 9/11 and the current financial mess has been, ironically, one that is traditionally Democratic: running huge deficits while creating vast new government interventionist bureaucracies to deal with homeland security and the credit crisis. The current administration also decided that this new era required an expensive, expansionist foreign policy, fighting "terror wars" on various fronts.

Now, the public may be in the process of deciding that, if a new era requires a more activist and expansionist government, Democrats are better equipped to handle these tasks. Voters may also decide that they are willing to accept the "risk" of a far more rapid military withdrawal from Iraq - which is, after all, the major foreign-policy difference between the McCain and Obama candidacies....

And then there's the credit crisis which has just hit; admittedly, its effects may not be known for months or even years. But if Obama is able to win big because of it, it could serve as the final crystallizing event that allows the Democratic Party to reap the benefit for years to come.

I'm not one to make predictions, and I'm not ruling out that John McCain can pull off a miraculous upset. But if trends on the economy and voter sentiment continue their current trajectory, 2008 may just well turn out to be a genuine critical election.

The key indicator, for me at least, will be what happens in the elections for the Senate, and here's how
Patrick Ruffini describes things:

If you're a conservative looking at the odds, what should really scare you is not the 80 to 90 percent chance that Barack Obama is the next President. It's the very real chance that Democrats could get to 60 or tantalizingly close to it in the Senate. President Barack Obama is unfortunate. President Barack Obama with 60 votes in the Senate means a socialist America.
And that would mean a fundamental reorientation in the ideological underpinnings of the American state, not unlike that following 1932.