Tacitus has a very interesting map that shows that the GOP sweep is extending from the legislatures of the states on up. Analyses like these show that there’s something more fundamental about the new direction of American politics than just a temporary shift towards the GOP.
Roughly every 30 years, the American political scene is changed in what is called a "realigning election". In 1800, the Federalists were defeated by the Jeffersonians. In 1828, Old Hickory shook up the American electorate with his Jacksonian Democrats. 1860 saw the Republicans take over from the ashes of the Whig Party. The election of 1896 saw the Populists divide the country, giving Republicans control of the industrial states while Democrats took the farm states. In 1932, FDR formed a new Democratic coalition. In 1980, Ronald Reagan reinvigorated conservative Republicans, leading up to this year.
Whereas the last realignment had left the American power structure fluctuating between Republican and Democratic control, this latest realignment appears to be pushing the GOP back into the dominant position in American politics for the first time in several decades. As Tacitus finds, this sweep isn’t just occurring at the national level, but across the nation.
The biggest reason is because the Republicans have finally joined the debate about key issues like education and social welfare. The GOP welfare reform package of the mid-90’s was the first step towards placing conservative ideas into the national policy context. In 2000, Karl Rove’s electoral strategy of "compassionate conservatism" worked by ensuring that the Republicans were no longer playing defense on the issues, but out there in the field and providing real alternatives to the voters. Unlike Dole in 1996, Bush was out there with a concrete educational plan that appealed to the sensibilities of both conservatives and swing voters.
The other major factor is the polarization of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have always enjoyed the ability to be able to attract large numbers of swing voters. Bill Clinton appealed to a large segment of the electorate by specifically rejecting the view of tax-and-spend liberalism. However, since the Republicans have finally been going on the offensive, the Democrats have essentially retreated by attempting to counter Republican plans with plans that are further to the left than the more moderate policies of the Clinton era. The war on terrorism was also certainly a factor, and the Democrats being viewed as soft on terrorism and homeland security also assuredly cost them votes.
The test of this election being a true alignment will come in 2004. However, the President’s party gaining seats in a midterm election is exceptionally rare in American politics. Add to that the shift in state legislative seats and surveys that show Americans identifying more and more with Republican policies and politics, and it’s clear that the seeds for a fundamental shift in American politics has begun.