Realigning election

Realigning election or political realignment are terms from political science and political history describing a dramatic change in the political system. Scholars frequently apply the term to American elections, and occasionally to other countries. Usually it means the coming to power of a new coalition, replacing an old dominant coalition of the other party (or, replacing a stalemate, as in the U.S. in 1896 or 1932). Realignment may center on a "critical election" or be spread among several elections. More specifically, they often refer to American national elections in which there are sharp changes in issues, party leaders, the regional and demographic bases of power of the two parties, and structure or rules of the political system (such as voter eligibility, or financing), resulting in a new political power structure and a new status quo.

Political realignments can be sudden (1-4 years) or can take place more gradually (5-20 years). Most often, however, particularly in Key's (1955) original hypothesis, it is a single "critical" election that serves as the basis for a realignment. An example of a gradual process, what political scientists refer to as "secular realignment" was the change in the voting patterns among white Southerners, who from the 1870s to 1962 had overwhelmingly voted Democratic (what was called the "Solid South") but began supporting Republican presidential and senatorial candidates in the 1960s. At lower office levels, however, as Aldrich (2000) and others have found, Democratic voting remained strong into the 1970s and only slowly shifted towards the GOP as state Republican organizations systematically broadened their base in the 1980s and 1990s. This gradual process changed in 1994 when voting among Southerners shifted dramatically towards the GOP (Jenkins et al. 2007).

Political scientists and historians often disagree about which elections are realignments and what defines a realignment, and even whether realignments occur. The terms themselves are somewhat arbitrary, however, and usage among political scientists and historians does vary. Walter Dean Burnham argued for a 30-36 year "cycle" of realignments. Many of the elections often included in the Burnham 36-year cycle are considered "realigning" for different reasons. Some political scientists, such as David Mayhew, are critical of the realignment theory altogether, saying there are no long-term patterns: "Electoral politics," he writes, "is to an important degree just one thing after another ... Elections and their underlying causes are not usefully sortable into generation-long spans ... It is a Rip Van Winkle view of democracy that voters come awake only once in a generation ... It is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end."

Realignment theory

The central holding of realignment theory, first developed in the political scientist V.O. Key's 1955 article, "A Theory of Critical Elections," is that American elections, parties and policymaking routinely shift in swift, dramatic sweeps.

V.O. Key Jr., E.E. Schattschneider, James L. Sundquist, Walter Dean Burnham and Paul Kleppner are generally credited with developing and refining the theory of realignment. Though they differed on some of the details, scholars have generally concluded that systematic patterns are identifiable in American national elections such that cycles occur on a regular schedule: once every 36-years or so. This period of roughly 30 years fits nicely with the notion that these cycles are closely linked to generational change. For social scientists, this point is important, since it helps to provide an objective sociological basis for the theory. Some, such as Schafer and Reichley, argue that the patterns are longer, closer to 50 to 60 years in duration. This would explain Democratic dominance from 1800 to 1860, Republican rule from 1860 to 1930, and a new period of Democratic dominance from 1930 to either 1980 or 1994.

The alignment of 1860, with Republicans winning a series of close presidential elections, yielded abruptly in 1896 to an era of more decisive GOP control, in which most presidential elections were blowouts, and Democratic Congresses were infrequent and brief. Thirty-six years later, that system was displaced by a cycle of Democratic dominance, lasting throughout the Great Depression and beyond.

Voter realignment

A central component of realignment is the change in behavior of voting groups. Realignment means the switching of voter preference from one party to another, in contrast to dealignment (where a voter group abandons a party to become independent or nonvoting). In the U.S. and Australia, as the ideologies of the parties define many of the aspects of voters' lives and the decisions that they make, a realignment by a voter tends to have a longer-lasting effect. In Britain and Canada, on the other hand, voters have a tendency to switch parties on a whim, perhaps only for one election, as there is far less loyalty towards a particular party.

Realigning elections in United States history

Here is presented a list of elections most often cited as "realigning," with disagreements noted:

  • United States presidential election, 1800Thomas Jefferson
  • United States presidential election, 1828Andrew Jackson
    • This election redefined the party system in the United States. The Democratic-Republicans split into two parties, later renamed as the Democratic Party and the Whig Party. The Democrats were led by Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and Martin Van Buren of New York. By 1832 the Whigs emerged as the opposition to Andrew Jackson, led by Henry Clay of Kentucky.
  • United States presidential election, 1860Abraham Lincoln
    • After the Whigs collapsed after 1852, party alignments were in turmoil, with several third parties, such as the Know Nothings. The system stabilized in 1858 and the presidential election marked the ascendance of the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln beat out three other contenders--but even if they had somehow united he still had the majority of the electoral vote. The Republican party was pledged to the long-term ending of slavery, which was proximate cause of secession. Republicans rallied around nationalism in 1861 and fought the American Civil War to end secession. During the war the Republicans, under Lincoln's leadership, switched to a goal of short-term ending of slavery.
    • The Republican Party went from 18.3% in 1854, to 38.0% in 1856, 48.7% in 1858, and 59.0% in 1860, for a total gain of 59.0% in 4 elections.
  • United States presidential election, 1896William McKinley
    • The status of this election is hotly disputed; some political scientists do not consider it a realigning election. Other political scientists and historians consider this the ultimate realignment and emphasize that the rules of the game had changed, the leaders were new, voting alignments had changed, and a whole new set of issues came to dominance as the old Civil-War-Era issues faded away. Funding from office holders was replaced by outside fund raising from business in 1896—a major shift in political history. Furthermore McKinley's tactics in beating William Jennings Bryan (as developed by Mark Hanna) marked a sea change in the evolution of the modern campaigning. McKinley raised a huge amount of money from business interests, outspending Bryan by 10 to 1. Bryan meanwhile invented the modern technique of campaigning heavily in closely contested states, the first candidate to do so. Bryan's message of populism and class conflict marked a new direction for the Democrats. McKinley's victory in 1896 and repeat in 1900 was a triumph for pluralism, as all sectors and groups shared in the new prosperity brought about by his policy of rapid industrial growth.
    • While Republicans lost House seats in 1896, this followed a massive two-election gain: from 25.9% in 1890 to 34.8% in 1892 and 71.1% in 1894, for a total 45.2% gain. Republicans lost 13.4% in 1896, but still held 57.7% of House seats.
    • In statistical terms, the election of 1896 is a realignment flop, but this is only a problem if realignment is considered to occur in single elections. Rather, if realignment is thought of as a generational or long-term political movement, then change will occur over several elections, even if there is one "critical" election defining the new alignment. So, as pointed out above, the 1896 realignment really began around 1892, and the 110 seat GOP gain (after all, this is the all-time record) in 1894 meant there were almost no seats left to pick up in 1896. However, the presidential election in 1896 is usually considered the start of the new alignment since the national election allowed the nation to make a more conscious decision about the future of industrial policy by selecting McKinley over Bryan, making this the defining election in the realignment. The election of 1876 passes the numbers test much better compared to 1896 alone, and Mayhew argues it resulted in far more drastic changes in United States politics: Reconstruction came to a sudden halt, African-Americans in the South would soon be completely disenfranchised, and politicians began to focus on new issues (such as tariffs and civil service reform).
  • United States presidential election, 1932Franklin Delano Roosevelt
    • 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. More critical historians see a great deal of continuity with Hoover's energetic but unsuccessful economic policies. There is no doubt Democrats vehemently attacked Hoover for 50 years. In many ways, Roosevelt's legacy still defines the Democratic Party; he forged an enduring coalition of big city machines, labor unions, Catholics, Jews, Westerners and Southerners. For instance, Pittsburgh, which was a Republican stronghold from the Civil War up to this point, suddenly became a Democratic stronghold, and has elected a Democratic mayor to office in every election since this time.
    • The Democrats went from 37.7% of House seats in 1928 to 49.6% in 1930 and 71.9% in 1932, for a total gain of 34.2% in two elections.

Possible modern realigning elections in the United States

Some doubt exists today as to what elections (if any) could be considered realigning elections after 1932. Although several candidates have been proposed, there is no widespread agreement:

  • U.S. presidential elections, 1964 through 1968Lyndon B. Johnson/Richard Nixon
    • The two elections resulted in the rise of racial issues as the dominant issue cleavage in American politics. The 1968 election is often cited due to the innovative campaign strategy of Nixon. In running against Hubert Humphrey, he used what became known as the Southern strategy. He appealed to white voters in the South with a call for "states' rights", which they interpreted as meaning that the federal government would no longer demand the forced busing of school children on behalf of African Americans' civil rights as it had under Democratic president Lyndon Johnson (who had signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Democrats protested that Nixon exploited racial fears in winning the support of white southerners and northern white ethnics. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition had lasted over 30 years but after the urban riots and Vietnam crisis of the mid 1960s one by one the coalition partners peeled away until only a hollow core remained, setting the stage for a GOP revival. Nixon's downfall postponed the realignment which came about under Reagan, as even the term "liberalism" fell into disrepute.
    • Including this as a realignment preserves the roughly 30-year cyclical pattern: 1896 to 1932, 1932 to 1964, and 1964 to 1994.
    • For political scientists, 1964 was primarily an issue-based realignment. The classic study of the 1964 election, by Carmines and Stimson (1989), shows how the polarization of activists and elites on race-related issues sent clear signals to the general public about the historic change in each party's position on Civil Rights. Notably, while only 50% of African-Americans self-identified as Democrats in the 1960 National Election Study, 82% did in 1964, a change which persists to this day. Perhaps the clearest indicator of the importance of this election, was that Deep Southern states, such as Mississippi, voted Republican in 1964, something unimaginable as late as 1956. In contrast, much of the traditional Republican strongholds of the Northeast and Upper Midwest voted Democratic. Vermont and Maine, which stood alone voting against FDR in 1936, voted for LBJ in 1964.
    • Many people do not consider 1968 a realigning election because control of Congress did not change; the Democrats would control the Senate until 1980 (and again from 1986 to 1994) and the House until 1994. Also missing was a marked change in the partisan orientation of the electorate. Importantly, these two elections are consistent with the theory in that the old New Deal issues were replaced by Civil Rights issues as the major factor explaining why citizens identified with each party. Other scholars contend that this is the beginning of a thirty year dealignment, in which citizens generally moved towards political independence, which ended with the 1994 election.
  • United States presidential election, 1980Ronald Reagan
    • In this election, Ronald Reagan won a sweeping victory over Democrat Jimmy Carter, who won only six states (plus the District of Columbia), which accounted for just 10% of the electoral vote. Republicans also took control of the Senate for the first time in over 25 years. (See Reagan's coattails.) Many people viewed Reagan's policies as sufficiently new to consider this a realigning election, and his iconic status within the Republican Party would appear to confirm this.
    • On the other hand, detractors note that control of the House did not change, nor even come close to changing, at this time. Republicans actually held fewer House seats in 1983 than they held in 1973. In addition, the Republicans lost the Senate again only six years later, leading some to theorize that the Senators simply rode in on Reagan's coattails, and did not represent a true shift in the ideological preferences of their constituents. Also absent was a shift in partisan alignment from public opinion polls.
  • United States House election, 1994 and United States Senate election, 1994
    • This election is now generally accepted as a realigning election by political scientists. Republicans won majorities in both the House and the Senate, taking control of both chambers for the first time since 1954. In addition, control of the House continued until the 2006 Election. Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America seemed like a sufficiently innovative technique to qualify, and the overwhelming nature of the Republicans' victory—they gained 54 seats, in a chamber of only 435 (the total gain in elections since was, for either party, in the single digits until 2006) —would seem to make this a candidate for consideration as a realigning election.
    • Importantly, but often overlooked, is the dramatic changes that occurred at the state level in this election. For example, the GOP gained seats in 43 of 46 state houses. These gains continued into the next decade, so that by 2002 the GOP held the majority of state legislative seats for the first time in fifty years.
    • Another factor making this a clear realigning election is the persistence of the changes that occurred. There is a growing consensus in political science that this is a realigning election, given the consistency of Republican control of national and many state institutions. For example, the GOP held the majority of state governorships between 1994 and 2006.
    • Notably, the period of party decline and mass dealignment appears to have ended in the 1990s. Strength of partisanship, as measured by the National Election Study, increased in the 1990s, as does the percentage of the mass public who perceive important differences between each party.
    • This election also indicates the rise of religious issues as one of the most important cleavage in American politics. While Reagan's election hinted at the importance of the religious right, it was the formation of the Christian Coalition (the successor to the Moral Majority) in the early 1990s that gave Republicans organizational and financial muscle, particularly at the state level. At the very least, most observers agreed that by 2004 the nation had realigned on national issues into "red" (Republican) and "blue" (Democratic) states, with sharp differences in attitudes and politics between the two blocs.
  • Possible realignment in the United States general elections, 2006?
    • Some analysts, such as E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, have begun to speculate that the 2006 midterm election may have been a realigning election Dionne has argued, "I think this election was really that conservative crackup that people have been talking about for 20 years, and it never quite materializes...the approach of the Republican revolution in Congress was overturned."
    • Several points suggest that the 2006 election may have been realigning, including:
    • The bulk of Republican losses in the U.S. House occurred in the northeast, and surrounding states. These seats had been Democratic-leaning for many years, but continued to support their Republican incumbents. Advocates of this realignment theory argue that the power of an unpopular Republican president, and the war in Iraq, was enough to cause a change in these seats. They also argue that given the Democratic-leaning nature of these seats, many may be difficult for Republicans to win back. A similar situation occurred in 1994 with regard to the U.S. House. Democratic losses in 1994 midterm elections were concentrated in southern Republican-leaning seats that had been Democratic during the days of the New Deal. These southern Democratic incumbents had managed to be reelected despite the nature of their seats. The unpopularity of President Bill Clinton in the conservative south has been widely attributed as the primary cause of this southern sweep. Even as of the 2006 midterm elections, most of the seats Democrats lost in 1994 had yet to be won back.
    • Several of the senate seats that Democrats won had been held by Republicans throughout much of recent history. Examples include the senate seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Some of these states, in particular Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, have shown Democrats to be strengthening statewide in recent decades, despite Republican dominance dating back to the 19th century.
    • Democratic pickups, with regards to both governorships and state legislative chambers, also were concentrated in Democratic leaning states. Many of these governorships and state legislative chambers, had been in Republican control throughout much of recent history. For example, the New Hampshire state house and state senate were both picked up by the Democrats in the 2006 election. Democrats had not held both chambers in eighty years. The Democratic sweep with regards to both New Hampshire congressional seats, the state executive council, and the easy reelection of the Democratic governor of New Hampshire, may point to a stronger underlying cause of the change in statehouse control.
    • Several smaller signs also point to a possible realignment. One sign has been a number of Republican-to-Democrat party switching in Midwestern states such as Kansas and Nebraska. In Kansas, for example, the newly-elected Lt. Governor, and the newly elected Attorney General, both switched political parties, from Republican to Democrat, in early 2006. Another sign is the Democrat-to-Republican switches in Minnesota and Wisconsin, such as the U.S. House seats in there are still held narrowly by Democrats, but these seats were very close, closer than usual.
    • Unlike the 1968 and 1980 elections, the 2006 election was indeed marked by a large change in partisan affiliation of the electorate. Both Gallup and the Pew Research Center have conducted polls following the election. The average of Gallup's 2007 results has thus far yielded an 11-point Democratic affiliation advantage when leaners are included; Pew's 2007 poll yielded a 15-point advantage for the same measure. For comparison, the average for Gallup's 2004 polls found a Democratic advantage of just two points, while Pew found an advantage of six points (and the two parties even in 2002).

Realigning elections outside the United States

See also

External links


  • Abramowitz, Alan I. and Kyle L. Saunders. 1998. “Ideological Realignment in the US Electorate.” Journal of Politics 60(3):634-652.
  • Aldrich, John H. 1995. Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Party Politics in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • ________. 2000. “Southern Politics in State and Nation.” Journal of Politics 62: 643-670.
  • Bullock, Charles S. III, Donna R. Hoffman and Ronald Keith Gaddie, "Regional Variations in the Realignment of American Politics, 1944–2004", Social Science Quarterly v 87#3 (Sept 2006) pp 494+; Abstract: Using the concepts of critical and secular realignments as a framework, models change in the end product of realignment, election outcomes. Tests for secular and critical changes in partisan strength across six geographic regions in US, focusing on office-holding data at both the federal and state legislative level. There are elements of both critical and secular realignments at work with different patterns in each region, and that different regions have been affected by a variety of elections associated with critical events since 1944. The collapse of Republican hegemony in the Northeast and Pacific West has gone largely unnoticed, buried in the intense examination of the growth of the Republican Party in the American South. The 1994 election is the most prominent in terms of its impact on seat holding by the parties at both the state and national level, and constitutes a realigning election.
  • Burnham, Walter Dean. Critical elections and the mainsprings of American politics (1970) (ISBN 0-393-09962-8)
  • Burnham, Walter Dean. "Periodization Schemes and 'Party Systems': The 'System of 1896' as a Case in Point," Social Science History, Vol. 10, No. 3, (Autumn, 1986), pp. 263-314. in JSTOR
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  • Manza, Jeff and Clem Brooks; Social Cleavages and Political Change: Voter Alignments and U.S. Party Coalitions, Oxford University Press, 1999 (ISBN 0-19-829492-1)
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  • Mayhew, David R. Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre. 2004. (ISBN 0-30-009336-5)
  • Arthur Paulson. Electoral Realignment and the Outlook for American Democracy (2006) (ISBN 1-55-553667-0)
  • Theodore Rosenof. Realignment: The Theory That Changed the Way We Think about American Politics (2003) (ISBN 0-74-253105-8)
  • Rapoport, Ronald and Walter Stone. 2005. Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence. (ISBN 0-47-211453-0)
  • Saunders, Kyle L. and Alan I. Abramowitz. 2004. “Ideological Realignment and Active Partisans in the American Electorate.” American Politics Research 32(3):285-309.

Schafer, Byron (ed.). 1991. Critical realignment: Dead or alive. In The End of Realignment? Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

  • Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. History of American Presidential Elections. 4 vols. 1971 and later editions (ISBN 0-79-105713-5)
  • Shafer, Byron E. and Anthony J. Badger, eds. Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775-2000 (2001) (ISBN 0-70-061139-8)
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