The Shrinking Democratic “Majority”

Vodkapundit links to an interesting article on the GOP’s growing advantage in party affiliation. From the article:

A year from the next presidential election, the nation stands at a rare point of political parity: Across 2003 precisely equal numbers of Americans have identified themselves as Democrats, Republicans and independents, a first in 23 years of ABCNEWS polling. The year’s averages — 31 percent for each group — mark an uneven but long-term rise among Republicans, to a new high, and the fewest Democrats in annual averages since 1981. All else being equal, the trends suggest continued Republican competitiveness in election politics, albeit far from the Democrats’ onetime dominance in sub-presidential races.

The vagaries of politics can change the scene. Rather than straight lines, party ID has played out in a long series of forays and retreats over the years, as the parties have battled chiefly over a small group of lightly committed Americans, mostly independents.

Change has been so gradual that, projecting past trends into the future (never a sure bet), it would take another 10 or 12 years for Republicans consistently to outnumber Democrats.

But time has not been on the Democrats’ side. There is a significant relationship between the annual average number of Democrats versus Republicans and the passage of time since 1981 (a correlation of .71, where 1 is strongest, 0 weakest).

A .71 level of correlation is an exceptionally strong correlation in statistical terms, meaning that the Democrats have a lot to be worried about over the long term. (Statistics geeks can find more information on the survey’s methodology in the original article.) Of course, in politics, the only constant is change. The Solid South used to mean solidly Democratic – now the exact opposite is true. Is this a sign of a significant political realignment?

We’re long due for a major political realignment. Roughly every 30 years there is a realigning election in the US. As James L. Sundquist of The Brookings Institution wrote a realignment is “a durable change in patterns of political behavior.” However, there are also “deviating” elections rather than realigning elections. Voters may change parties based on candidates rather than any long-lasting political trend.

What the ABC poll shows is that Clinton’s 1992 election and the New Democratic coalition that produced it may have not been a significant relalignment towards the Democrats as some had predicted but may well be a deviation from a period of increasing Republican control.

The 2000 election was Gore’s to lose. He lost it in the Electoral College. 2002 proved that the GOP’s wins in 2000 weren’t a fluke.

2004 may be the biggest sign of a major political realignment. In many ways, Bush is vulnerable, but he also has a solid base in the South. If he does nothing more than win the states he won in 2000 he will carry the Presidency with 278 electoral votes. The Democrats have virtually surrendered the South, and it’s looking like the GOP will pick up two more Southern governorships today. No Democrat has won in recent political history without winning at least four southern states. The chances of the current field of Democrats doing that seem slim at best.

The fundamental problem with the Democrats is that they are a coalition party to a far larger extent than are the Republicans. The Democrats have the radical left, African-Americans, urban liberals, environmentalists, labor unions, public sector unions, and other groups. These groups are often in conflict. Environmental regulations hurt auto workers. African-Americans generally support school vouchers, but teacher’s unions do not. Urban liberals general have contempt for non-urban voters. In other words, the Democrats have any number of interst group fault lines that could erupt into a major conflict. 1968 was the first major indication of this problem, and in the 30+ years since then those rifts still exist.

By comparison, the Republicans have basically two groups: economic and social conservatives. Economic conservatives tend to be more liberal on social issues, but this coalition is held together by economic issues. Indeed, as the 2000 election and the 2003 California recall election showed, an economic conservative and social moderate can attract enough swing voters to negate the effect of social conservative defections. In 2003 the GOP recieved 61% of the vote in a Democratic stronghold state.

By the numbers, 2004 is George W. Bush’s election to lose. The Democrats have an endemic weakness in the South that can easily cost them the election. The Democrats are fractured on key issues, and they’re running far to the left of the New Democratic coalition that slowed the Republican advance in 1992 and 1996. The fact remains that the Democrats do not have a coherent policy alternative, they’re ideological polarized, and they’re fighting a demographic shift to the GOP’s favor. 2004 won’t be a walk for the GOP, but unless the Democrats change their fundamental electoral strategy this may be the next major realigning election in American politics.

One thought on “The Shrinking Democratic “Majority”

  1. Regrettably, much of what you say is correct. The ascendacy of the Old Confederacy into a political power position has made a solid coalition for the Republican Party, and the Democrats need to virtually run the table across the non-Dixie and Rocky Mountain states to succeed in national races. Issue for issue, most people do not agree with most of the party platform, but there’s niche appeals to a small majority of Americans to take bite after bite out of the poisoned apples that the serpents keep offering them.

    The Democrats are in a lose-lose situation as far as running left or center. Running left will electrify their base but alienate suburban moderates. Running center will alienate the left but keep the soccer moms in line. Both factions need to be on the same page for a Democratic victory. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for running populist versus running centrist. Modern-day centrism is often defined by support for economic globalization, abortion rights, modest anti-gun measures and equal rights for homosexuals. Racing to the center is often recommended as a way of reigning in the South, but the above-stated issues will not entice Southerners to vote for Democrats. A believable populist selling a message of preserving American manufacturing jobs and staying away for the social issues would seem to have a much better chance of winning the few Southern states still in play, such as Arkansas and Louisiana. But as you stated, it’s a difficult tightrope walk to bring the disparate coalition together, which is why I’ve felt from day one that John Edwards may be the Dems best bet for 2004. As a Minnesota populist Democrat, I can understand a sense of frustration and betrayal among like-minded voters, scratching our heads over how the party’s majority constituency has managed to become more concerned with secondhand cigarette smoke than helping the poor and working class.

    As for the Republican coalition, it’s a little more complicated than you suggest, but certainly more effective in recent history. The Republicans manage to keep their hooks on the military with promises of blank-check pork-barrel defense budgets, Bible-thumpers with promises of abortion prohibition pots of gold at the end of the rainbow and a steady stream of unconstitutional faith-based welfare and private school voucher boondoggles, robber barons with promises of continually plunging corporate tax rates and a vast assortment of deregulation schemes, and their biggest demographic, bigshot-wannabe yuppies whose only real concern is “gimme my tax cut so I can pay off my Lexus.” This Republican coalition is pretty darn firm, no doubt.

    However, you’re not accounting for the one-issue voters, which I estimate make up at least a quarter of the GOP faithful. Most of my barely-above-the-poverty-line co-workers are dependent on government handouts in some shape or form, meaning that they are the embodiment of gutter trash in the eyes of the Republican party. Nonetheless, the only issue on their political radar screen worth caring about is abortion….so they vote Republican without any real commitment to the party’s platform. I can assure you that the rural dominance of Bush and the Republican Party is based on social issues such as abortion and guns far more than any reverence for plutocracy or another round of corporate tax cuts by the $6 an hour Wal-Mart clerks of Middle America. From my less-than-scientific analysis of American voters, I would guess than 20% of Republican voters decide their vote primarily or entirely on the abortion issue, 5-7% decide based on the gun issue, and 1-2% decide based on the GOP’s discrimination against gays.

    If the Democrats run heavily on a platform of abortion rights, gun restrictions, and support of gay marriage they WON’T reach 270 electoral votes no matter how badly Bush has messed things up. Bush is wise to this and is cleverly setting up the Dems to address the abortion and gay marriage issues and thus alienate voters. The GOP has a pretty ingenius re-election strategy that they may need given Bush’s unimaginably horrendous performance, shooting down the credibility of his potential opponents early and often to indoctrinate into voters’ heads that the competition is full of extremists, and thus silencing Bush’s proven record of political extremism.

    I would say that the year 2000 represented a political alignment that will probably hold true for some time. With rare exception (Ohio, New Hampshire), the Civil War battle lines have returned to their 1861 form. Ohio and New Hampshire’s Republicanism is certainly not in line with the empowered Republicanism of Texas and South Carolina, however, so the dynamic in progress may be completed in the near future.

    While the Democrats’ current situation may seem bleak, their long-term prospects are glowing because of the wild card of immigration. The face of America is changing at warp speed, and not to GOP advantage. The transformation has been most noticeable in California, Nevada and Arizona. The latter two states were uncontested GOP strongholds up until the 1990’s, but immigration has shifted them closer and closer to the “swing state” status in recent elections. California was a conservative-leaning cowboy frontier before it became the Americanized Quebec. Despite the Schwarzenegger anomaly, the Republican party would seem to be all but obsolete in the Golden State today. Go to any remote region of America and just about every place is being completely taken over by immigrants serving as cheap-labor mercenaries for gluttonous companies. Although immigration is certain to be the final straw in destroying the livelihoods of my working-class family and neighbors, it’s benefit appears to be an America where the dangerous worldview of Republicans is minimized. When this transition is completed, and a simple drive into Anytown USA would indicate that the process shouldn’t take very long, the fractured and disparate Democratic coalition will likely withstand its current defectors.

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