Is Realignment Real?

November 4, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

What will the Democratic victory today mean for political alignment?*

At our one-week-to-go colloquium on the election last Tuesday, political scientist Dan Cassino talked about realignment. Some Presidential elections seem to turn the political map inside out. When Dan flashed from the election map of 1928 to the map of 1932, it looked almost like a magic trick. Watch closely – with a click of a mouse, the country goes from nearly all red to nearly all blue.

He repeated the effect with 1964 and 1968.

Did these elections crystallize a long-term realignment in US politics? The 1932 election was the first of five straight Presidential victories for the Democrats. The Republicans, starting in 1968 won five out of six.

But is realignment real? Certainly the realignment Karl Rove predicted – a permanent Republican majority – didn’t happen, despite the efforts of the Bush administration to turn every government department and agency into a wholly owned subsidiary of the RNC.

Now, in reading around in Brendan Nyhan’s blog , I discover that realignment itself may be a myth, existing more in the eye of the beholder than in political reality.
David Mayhews Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre . . . argues convincingly that so-called realignments are a product of statistical naivete and the human penchant for hyperactive pattern detection rather than a real phenomenon of American politics.
Those periods of Democratic and Republican dominance might just be the result of random variation.
In the sequence of presidential elections from 1856 through 1980, the distribution of victory “runs” by party . . . did not differ significantly from the runs of heads and tails that would be expected from coin flips. Also, in the absence of repeat major-party candidates (such as Reagan in 1984 or Bryan in 1900), a presidential election four years ago holds virtually zero predictive value for this year's election—either in predicting this year’s victorious party or this year’s party shares of the vote
Why do I find this idea so hard to accept? In sports, I’ve always scoffed at the idea “momentum.” The sports announcer saying that “after that interception in the third quarter, the Jets had the momentum” is like a roulette player talking about red gaining the momentum from black.

But voting is not a random event. Voters aren’t flipping coins. They are making choices based on their perceptions of the candidates and the current situation. People may change their ideas when circumstances change. And newer generations of voters may see the world and politics differently from older voters.

So realignment may be real, just not as sudden as the maps make it appear. Our two-party system and winner-take-all allocation of each state’s electoral vote magnify differences. Two states may differ by a fraction of a percentage point, but one will be all blue and the other all red. Maps that allowed for shades of purple would show a much more gradual shift.

*Im writing this well before the votes have been tallied, in fact before most votes have been cast.

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