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The Enduring Character of Democrats and Republicans in Times of Political Change

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The failures of the two parties to achieve the dominant status their strategists hoped for and predicted has been due in large part to their basic character.

Our two great political parties are one feature of our political system that was not envisaged or at least not welcomed by the Founding Fathers. Two features of the constitutional framework they established encouraged the development of two major parties—the Electoral College, at least as modified by the Twelfth Amendment, and the single-member district, which, while not constitutionally mandated, has been the rule rather than the exception since the 1790s1.  These have tended to channel our politicians into two political parties, each incentivized to seek national majorities and each tending to discipline factions into a coherent whole.

The Democratic and Republican parties are, by my reckoning, the oldest and third-oldest political parties in the world today; the British Conservative party, if you date it from Disraeli’s rebellion against Sir Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Law in 1846, being the second-oldest.

How did parties with such enduring characteristics come to appeal to such different regional and ethnic constituencies?

I date the Democratic Party from 1832, when backers of incumbent President Andrew Jackson organized a Democratic National Convention to nominate their hero for president and his prime political manager Martin Van Buren for vice president. The Democrats have met every four years since in an unbroken string of 45 national conventions, of which I have attended the most recent 11.

The Republican Party was formed, either in Ripon, Wisconsin, or Jackson, Michigan, in 1854, in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Republicans have met in national convention every four years starting in 1856, some 39 times, and I have attended the most recent 9. So, though I consider myself a young man, I have attended 24% of the two parties’ national conventions. And I have covered 18% of the 111 Congresses convened since 1789 as the principal co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, of which 20 biannual editions have been published.

In Group and Out Group

My thesis is that these two long-enduring political parties are not twins but rather are different in character, as has been recognized by the political cartoonists who have drawn them as donkeys and elephants for the last century and a half.

One strength of the Republican Party is that its core constituency is seen as undeniably and perhaps uniquely American.

The core constituency of the Republican Party has been the people who are seen by themselves and by others as ordinary Americans or, to put it in perhaps less offensive terms, the in group. In the 19th century, that in group consisted of northern white Protestants. Today it consists of married white Christians. One strength of the Republican Party is that its core constituency is seen as undeniably and perhaps uniquely American. One weakness of the Republican Party is that its core constituency has never been enough, by itself, to constitute a majority of the American people. We hear people today saying that we have been a uniquely diverse country, but of course the United States has always been a diverse country, regionally, religiously, racially, and ethnically—diverse enough regionally that Henry Adams begins his history of America in the Jefferson and Madison administrations by describing three regional cultures, New England, the Middle States, and the South; diverse enough religiously that the Founders both prohibited a national established church and vowed not to interfere with the established church of any state; diverse enough racially that 20% of the Americans counted in the first census in 1790 were black slaves and that black Americans today, at 12% of the population, remain a distinctive minority group.

The core constituency of the Democratic Party has been people who are seen by themselves and by others as something other than ordinary Americans or, to put it in less offensive terms, out groups. In the 19th century those out groups included white Southerners and urban Catholics of immigrant origin—and also smaller groups like Mormons. Today those out groups include black Americans, single women, and highly educated seculars—and also smaller groups like gays and lesbians (although one should note that group was just about the only one that, according to exit polls, voted less Democratic in 2008 than in 2004).

One weakness of the Republican Party is that its core constituency has never been enough, by itself, to constitute a majority of the American people.

As a result of the character of their core constituencies, the Republicans have tended to be a more unified party and the Democrats more fissiparous. I am speaking here in relative, not absolute terms. The Democrats split between Northerners and Southerners in 1860, the Republicans between Progressives and Regulars in 1912, in both cases with disastrous results in that election. In the 1940s and the 1950s, Republicans were split between an East Coast New York-based establishment which dominated national conventions and a Midwestern, more dispersed, conservative faction which dominated its ranks in Congress.

But it is the Democratic Party which has had truly monumental splits. Up until the 1930s, when it adopted centralizing economic policies, the Democrats more than the Republicans were the party of laissez faire economics and regional diversity. The economic policies of Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland were designed to and mostly did obviate the need to pick economic favorites, while Republicans subsidized railroads, passed protective tariffs, and gave away land to homesteaders. Republicans tended to back prohibition and tried for a time to enforce blacks’ rights in the South. Democrats’ deference to states’ rights left the Democrats free to be the party of the saloon in the North and of segregation in the South.

It is hard to realize in this day, when we think nothing of changing planes in Atlanta, how far apart Northern and Southern Americans lived in the three-quarters of a century between the Civil War and World War II. In those 75 years, some 30 million Europeans immigrated to the American North, but only about 1 million blacks and 1 million whites moved from the South to the North, even though wages were twice as high in the North. It was as if there was a wall along the Potomac and Ohio Rivers. At the 1908 Democratic national convention in Denver, some entrepreneurs thought to take a trainload of snow from high in the Rockies down to the convention city. It was a big hit: many of the Southern delegates had never seen snow.

The Democrats’ coalition of disparate elements, which came together impressively in 2008, now seems in danger of flying apart again, as Democratic coalitions have in the past.

The different character of the parties has been reflected in the party rules. From 1836 to 1932, the Democrats required a two-thirds vote of their conventions to nominate a candidate for president. This requirement resembled John C. Calhoun’s idea of concurrent majorities: a nominee had to be acceptable to a significant number of delegates in both North and South. Since 1968, Democratic Party delegate selection rules have required various forms of proportional representation. The idea is that each distinctive part of the Democratic coalition should be guaranteed representation. In contrast, Republican Party delegate selection rules tend toward winner-take-all. Each party tends to consider its rules the only fair way. In 1996 Patrick Buchanan won nearly one-fourth of the votes in Republican primaries but only a smattering of delegates. But it did not occur to him for a second to demand one-fourth of the delegates—while a Democrat in a similar position would have been screaming injustice. 

We saw the effects of these different rules in the 2008 presidential selection process. In the Republican contest after Super Tuesday, February 5, John McCain had a lead of about 500 to 200 delegates over Mitt Romney. But if Romney had won just 3% more in the January 29 and February 5 primaries and McCain 3% less, Romney would have been leading in delegates by my calculation by 383 to 365. Narrow victories in winner-take-all primaries accounted for McCain’s big delegate lead. A proportional representation system would have meant that the Republican contest would have gone on until June—which is exactly what happened in the Democratic contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton actually won more votes and more delegates in primaries than Obama. But Obama’s lopsided victories in caucus states, in which much smaller proportions of voters participated, gave him the lead in earned delegates and, because it would have been disastrous for a party heavily dependent on black voters to reject a black candidate in these circumstances, the superdelegates—elected officeholders and party officials—went along and gave Obama the nomination. This even though Clinton won contests in states with 268 House districts and Obama won contests in states with only 167.

Geography and Demography as Destiny

But despite the continuity in character of the parties over what is now a very long period of time—178 years for the Democrats, 156 years for the Republicans—the geographic and demographic bases of the parties have changed markedly. In some respects they have turned upside down. The original ethnic base of Andrew Jackson’s Democrats were the descendants of the Scots-Irish immigrants, including Jackson’s parents, who settled up and down the Appalachian chain and then southwest to Texas. This was arguably the demographic group in which Obama made his weakest showings in 2008, in both the primaries and the general election. If you map the counties in which Hillary Clinton beat Obama by more than 2–1 margins, or if you map the counties in which McCain ran ahead of George W. Bush’s percentages in 2004, you come up with essentially the same map—the map of the Scots-Irish settlements from southwest Pennsylvania to east Texas. Similarly, the demographic group that was the most supportive of the early Republicans was black Americans, when they were allowed to vote. They voted virtually unanimously for Republicans when they were allowed to in the Reconstruction South, and they were one demographic group which stuck with Herbert Hoover over Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. But, starting in 1964, blacks have been voting almost unanimously Democratic and in 2008 they voted 95% for Obama.

It is the Democratic Party which has had truly monumental splits.

These have not been the only changes in the parties’ regional and demographic bases. Consider the presidential elections of 1944 and 1988, just 44 years apart. In each case the winner won 53% of the popular vote, the loser 46%. In each election the winner’s strongest region, in percentage terms, was the South. His second-strongest region was the West. In each election the winner narrowly carried or only narrowly lost large Northern states like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri. The difference is that the winner in 1944 was a Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, and the winner in 1988 was a Republican, George H. W. Bush.

How did this reversal come to occur? How did parties with such enduring characteristics come to appeal to such different regional and ethnic constituencies? My answer is that this was the result of competition between the two national parties for critical segments of the electorates, critical because they determined key electoral votes in close contests in times when the longstanding partisan alignments were becoming unstable.

New York State of Mind

Democrats’ deference to states’ rights left the Democrats free to be the party of the saloon in the North and of segregation in the South.

In the first half of the 20th century, the key state in the competition between the parties was New York. It was by far the largest state and in years of heavy immigration tended to grow faster than the national average, so that from 1932 to 1950 it had 47 electoral votes, significantly more than any other state. At a time when the South was heavily Democratic and many Northern states heavily Republican, New York was relatively evenly divided; in the 13 presidential elections between 1900 and 1948 its Democratic percentage was just 1.5% under the national average. So, in any close election, New York was a key target state. This equipoise resulted from the fact that there were essentially three electoral blocs in New York state—Catholics in New York City who supported Tammany Hall and other machine Democrats; New-England-Yankee-descended Protestants in Upstate New York who supported Republicans; and Jews, concentrated in New York City, who had a distaste both for machine Democrats and machine Republicans. On issues both economic and cultural, on workers’ rights and civil rights, Jewish voters were well to the left of both Democrats and Republicans; they were most at home with Fiorello LaGuardia, who at one point was elected to Congress on the Republican and Socialist lines and who was elected Mayor of New York three times despite the opposition of Tammany Hall and with the support of Franklin Roosevelt and the sometimes Communist-supporting American Labor party.

The importance of Jewish voters, who may have constituted as much as 15% of the electorate in an otherwise evenly split state with as many as 47 electoral votes, did much to shape American politics and to move it in a liberal direction in the first half of the 20th century: they were the fulcrum point of political competition that moved American politics left. Their prominence gave New York politicians of both major parties an incentive to move left on both economic and cultural issues, and New York politicians in those years were especially prominent in presidential politics. This was true of New York Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes, Thomas Dewey, and Nelson Rockefeller and of New York Democrats like William Randolph Hearst (who was elected to Congress in 1902 and 1904 and nearly elected governor in 1906), Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, and Averell Harriman. Political scientists and pundits opined that independent-minded liberal voters swung the balance in all the large Northern states, but in New York they were a much larger share of the electorate than anywhere else. New York’s position as a fulcrum point in national politics helped to transform the Democratic Party—arguably in the time of Woodrow Wilson and certainly in the time of Franklin Roosevelt—from a laissez faire party to a big government party, from a party whose commitment to the nation was clouded by its Confederate sympathies in the past to a party which led the nation in two worlds wars and the Cold War as well. It helped to transform the Republican Party from an activist government party to one which resisted big government policies and from a proudly nationalist party to one which for two decades leaned toward isolationism.

Since 1968, Democratic Party delegate selection rules have required various forms of proportional representation.

The competition for New York remained strenuous up through 1948. In his four races for president, Franklin Roosevelt never carried Upstate New York and ran behind his national average in his home state every time. The 1948 contest for New York can be seen as a three-way race between Democrat Harry Truman, Republican Thomas Dewey, and Progressive Henry Wallace, who all emphasized their support of civil rights—not so much to attract black voters, who were not numerous in Northern states, but to attract Jewish voters in New York. But by 1960 Jewish voters in New York and elsewhere had become faithful Democrats, the appeal of socialism and third parties like the American Labor Party and the Liberals having mostly worn off. New York became a safe Democratic state; starting in 1960 it voted an average of 6.6% more Democratic than the national average (and 10.5% more Democratic in the last four elections). New York still produced Republican politicians who appealed to liberal voters, notably Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Jacob Javits, and Mayor John Lindsay, but none was able to win a presidential nomination as New York-based2  liberal Republicans had in all four presidential elections between 1940 and 1952. 

'The Solid South'

What replaced New York as the fulcrum point in national electoral politics? My answer is white voters in the South. Memories of the Civil War keep “the Solid South” solidly Democratic for nearly 100 years. In 1960 John Kennedy won his second-highest percentage in any state in Georgia, scarcely congenial cultural ground for the grandson of a Boston Irish saloonkeeper—but then 1960 was only 96 years after Sherman’s March to the Sea. To be sure, parts of the mountain South voted obdurately Republican out of memories of the Civil War. A personal anecdote: my great-grandfather from West Virginia, when asked why he voted for Dewey over Roosevelt in 1944, answered matter-of-factly, “The Confederates burned our barn.” In 1944, Roosevelt won 72% of the vote in the South (defined here as the 11 Confederate states) and 60% in his weakest Southern state. In only one non-Southern state did he win as much as 60%—Utah, where Mormons apparently still remembered that their state was admitted to the Union during the administration of Democrat Grover Cleveland.

The Democratic and Republican parties are, by my reckoning, the oldest and third-oldest political parties in the world today.

But even in 1944 there were signs that the Solid South was cracking. A slate of “Texas Regular” electors supported by right-wing oil men won 12% of the vote in Texas. Then, in 1948, Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party—although he assured me in 1988 that he did not walk out of their convention—and ran for president on a States’ Rights Democratic ticket that carried four Deep South states—South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Those four states plus Georgia and Arizona were the only states that voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, after the man who integrated his Phoenix department store voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Goldwater was the first Republican nominee since Reconstruction to win a higher percentage of the vote in the South than in the North. And in 1968, George Wallace’s American Independent party candidacy carried Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and, while Bill Clinton was off to Oxford, Arkansas.

While the Deep South states voted for candidates who favored or seemed to favor legally enforced racial segregation, Dwight Eisenhower carried what might be considered Border South states in the 1950s, or states that had had some significant increase in Northern-born population—Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas in 1952, and those four states plus Louisiana in 1956 (when Eisenhower carried Catholic voters in many states). In 1960, Richard Nixon again carried Virginia (where Senator Harry Byrd maintained for the third time his “golden silence” on his presidential choice), Tennessee and Florida for the Republicans, but narrowly lost Texas to the Boston-Austin ticket of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. At the same time Byrd won all the electoral votes in Mississippi and 6 of 11 in Alabama, where electors were nominated in the Democratic primary and all 11 got about the same number of popular votes. Whether Kennedy got a popular vote plurality nationally depends on whether you count all of Alabama’s popular votes for him or only five-elevenths of them.

In 1968 and 1972, even as the Voting Rights Act effectively enfranchised Southern blacks, the South seemed lost to the Democrats. In 1968, George Wallace carried 5 of the Confederate states and Richard Nixon carried another 5; the 11th, Texas, voted for Lyndon Johnson’s vice president Hubert Humphrey by a 1.3% margin over Nixon. In 1972, Nixon won between 65% and 78% in the Confederate states. Was this because Republicans were seen, as some charge, as the party of white supremacy? I think not. By the mid-1970s no appreciable segment of the Southern electorate wanted to return to legally enforced racial segregation. Republicans’ positions on other issues were more popular. The Democrats had become the party of the doves—an unpopular position in the hawkish South. Republicans took conservative positions on issues like crime, welfare, and, in time, abortion—popular stands with white Southerners. If anything, the Republican surge in the South was overdetermined. 

On Down the Ballot

But Republican victories at the presidential level did not translate into Republican victories in down-ballot races. Only a few Republicans were elected to the Senate from Confederate states in the 1960s and 1970s3.  In November 1980, as Ronald Reagan was winning every Southern state except Jimmy Carter’s Georgia, Southern states were represented in the Senate by 16 Democrats and only 6 Republicans. The Republicans’ failure to break through was even more stark in Southern elections for the House. Republicans won a majority of the popular vote for the House in the North in 1966 and 1968—the only times between 1956 and 1994 when they did so. But they elected only a handful of Republicans to the House, no more than 34 in 108 Southern states in 19724.  Republican pickings were even slimmer in contests for state legislatures. 

My sense is that the Republicans were blocked from down-ballot advances in the South by the influence of two major political figures, George Wallace and Jimmy Carter. Wallace, after his independent candidacy in 1968, ran in the Democratic primaries in 1972, when he won several Northern states, and 1976, when he was knocked out of the race by Carter in Florida. Wallace provided a ready template for rural-based Southern Democrats in states and districts where Republicans historically had been unknown or disreputable.

Carter’s election in 1976, when he carried every Southern state except Virginia, provided both coattails and credibility to Southern Democrats of all ideological stripes. Carter was the last Democratic nominee to win, in both 1976 and 1980, higher percentages in the South than in the North: 54% in 1976 and 44% in 1980. After a period in which Republicans had been making gains in presidential races in the South and Democrats were making some partially offsetting gains in historically Republican parts of the North, the two major party nominees in 1976 happened to come from their parties’ historical heartlands—Gerald Ford from Michigan, one of the birthplaces of the Republican Party, and Jimmy Carter from south Georgia. In addition, Carter the born-again Christian was arguably more conservative on emerging cultural issues like abortion, while Ford, or at least his wife, was embracing liberal positions on women’s rights and abortion as so many upscale Northern suburbanites were doing. Carter carried the South by a 54%–45% margin while Ford carried the North by a 49.0%–48.9% margin. Ford carried California, running behind only 51%–49% in the San Francisco Bay area, while Carter was carrying Southern-accented territory as far north as the Ohio counties below the old National Road, enabling him to carry that state’s 25 electoral votes, without which he would have won only 2 more electoral votes than needed for a majority.

In 1980 Carter won 44% of the vote in the South and 40% elsewhere. In 1984, with Carter out of the picture, Ronald Reagan carried the South 62%–37%, more than his 58%–42% margin in the North, and ever since Republican presidential candidates have run stronger in the South than in the rest of the country. And each Republican candidate has carried the South, except for Bob Dole who trailed Bill Clinton there by 46.2%–46.1% in 1996.

The Republican advance in down-ballot races took more time. The 1990 election was the first one since Reconstruction in which Republican candidates for the House won a higher share of the vote in the South than in the North—and they have done so ever since. In the 1994 House elections, Republicans carried the popular vote for the House in the South by 55%–43% and in the North by 51%–46%. Since then, in House elections Republicans have won the popular vote for the House in the South and lost it in the North, with the single exception of 2002, when Republicans won the popular vote in the North by a 49%–48% margin. The result is that by 2008 the South had ceased some time since from being the fulcrum point of competitive national electoral politics, just as New York had ceased to be the fulcrum point half a century before.

Seeking a New Fulcrum in the Age of Open Field Politics

What region or segment of the electorate is the new fulcrum point in the competition between our two political parties? That is hard to say because we seem to be going through a period of instability and volatility in our partisan politics—we are in what I have called a period of open field politics. This is in vivid contrast to the period between 1995 and 2005, which I called a period of trench warfare politics, in which the two parties seemed to be about equal-sized armies in a culture war, fighting for the narrow bits of terrain which could make the difference between victory and defeat. In the five House elections during that period, Republicans got between 48% and 51% of the vote and Democrats got between 46% and 49% of the vote, with Republicans coming out ahead each time but never by a wide margin. In the North, Republicans got between 47% and 49%, Democrats between 48% and 50%. In the South, Republicans got between 52% and 58% and Democrats between 41% and 44%. In presidential elections during that period Democrats got 49%, 48%, and 48% of the vote and Republicans got 41%, 48%, and 51%—though, if you add to Bob Dole’s percentage the proportion of Ross Perot voters for whom he was the second choice, he gets about 47%. We haven’t seen such an equal balance in partisan strength since the 1880s—and no one in Washington has any memory of the 1880s now that Strom Thurmond is gone.

In the period since 2005—since confidence in George W. Bush’s competence waned due to Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq—there has been much more oscillation in opinion. Democrats won the popular vote for the House 53%–45% in 2006 and 55%–43% in 2008. Obama won the presidency by a 53%–46% margin—not quite a landslide, but the largest percentage win for a Democrat since 1964 and the best showing by any Democratic president since the Civil War except for Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt. The Obama campaign shrewdly targeted not only those states that were evenly balanced during the partisan equipoise of 1995–2005 but also others—Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana—which they correctly identified as winnable. The Obama campaign generated record turnout and percentages from black Americans, won a larger percentage of the under-30 vote than any candidate in history (or at least since the development of exit polls), and extended the gains already made since the 1990s among upscale urban and suburban voters. The Obama coalition was a top and bottom coalition: he carried voters with incomes under $50,000 and over $200,000 while losing those in between; he carried large percentages from those with no high school diplomas and those with graduate degrees while running only even among those in between.

But it is not clear that Democrats will be able to hold this coalition together. Current polling shows Democrats doing worse on the generic ballot question—which party’s candidate will you vote for in elections to the House—than at any time since Gallup started asking the question in 1950. Negative feelings toward the Democratic Party have grown sharply since Obama’s election and inauguration. At the same time, voters show similarly negative feelings toward the Republican Party. Democrats came to power in January 2009 with the assumption that economic distress would make Americans more amenable to big government policies than they typically have been in the past. That assumption appears to have been mistaken. At the same time it is not clear whether voters would be amenable to sharp decreases in government spending or significant changes in entitlement programs. 

In our now five-year-old period of open field politics, both parties’ strategists have looked forward to establishing long-term natural majorities for their parties. Karl Rove hoped that George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 would be the beginning of a long period of Republican dominance. James Carville published a book predicting that Obama’s victory in 2008 would be the beginning of a 40-year period of Democratic dominance. I am increasingly inclined to take the view of the Yale political scientist David Mayhew, which casts doubt on whether either party has ever actually enjoyed a natural majority. If you look hard at the 1894–1930 period, in which Republicans are supposed to have had a natural majority, or at the 1932–68 period, in which Democrats are supposed to have had a natural majority—and especially if you put yourself in the position of the party strategists in those times, unarmed as they were with a knowledge of the future—the extent of party dominance seems uncertain. Republicans lost some elections in that first period and were not confident they would win all the elections they did. The same can be said of Democrats in the second period. Examination of Gallup’s polling in the late 1930s, to take an example which I think is of particular relevance at this time, shows opposition to high government spending and support for curbing the power of labor unions; it at least suggests that the Republicans would have won the election of 1940 if it had been decided on domestic issues. But in June 1940, France fell, Hitler and Stalin were allies in control of most of the landmass of Eurasia—and Franklin Roosevelt was nominated and elected for a third term as a seasoned and fearless leader in a time of national peril. Similarly, in 1948 almost no one expected Harry Truman to win a full term, and yet he did—because, in my view, of his successful assertion of American power in the Berlin blockade and because of the fears of the then still numerous farmers regarding what would happen if price support programs were abolished. And John Kennedy’s victory in 1960 was by one of the narrowest margins in history.

The apparent failures of the two parties to achieve the dominant status their strategists hoped for and predicted has been due in large part to their basic character. The Republican Party’s dominant core constituency of white married Christians is of course not enough to form a majority by itself, and the religiosity and Southernness of this core constituency group has been offputting to many other voters—just as the Democrats’ cultural and foreign policy liberalism was offputting to many voters starting in the late 1960s. The Republicans’ in group repelled many affluent suburbanites who in the 1995–2005 period voted more Democratic than in the past and in 2008 voted even more Democratic. It repelled young voters who voted 2–1 for Obama and Democratic congressional candidates in 2008.

Although here I must be more tentative, the Democrats’ coalition of disparate elements, which came together impressively in 2008, now seems in danger of flying apart again, as Democratic coalitions have in the past, in the 1920s and the 1960s, at the presidential level in 1980, and at the congressional level in 1994. The domestic policies of the Obama Democrats are conspicuously failing to appeal to many of the 53% of voters who elected them in 2008. And Obama’s rejection in his foreign policy of the American exceptionalism and assertiveness of American power which characterized the politically successful foreign policies of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton is, in my view, a weakness the full potential of which has not yet been realized, but may be by 2012—as a similar tendency in the foreign policy of Jimmy Carter was in 1980.

Looking ahead, no one seems to have identified a geographical fulcrum point similar to New York during the first half of the 20th century and white Southerners in the second half. Blacks may turn out in record numbers and cast record percentages once again for Obama in 2012, but probably never again—just as the Democrats’ Catholic percentage declined slightly from John Kennedy’s 78% even in the banner year of 1964 and then plunged far lower afterwards: you can only elect the first Catholic or black president once. Republicans might hope to make gains among young and Hispanic voters, groups without long-held party loyalties which are going to form larger proportions of the electorate in the years ahead.  But young voters are spread pretty evenly around the country, and Hispanics are a factor in many states, but not the dominant factor anywhere. Democrats looking at the results in the New Jersey and Virginia governor races and the special Senate election in Massachusetts should be worried about the sudden Republican trend among what I would call non-elite college-educated whites, those private-sector workers who resent government bailouts of the unworthy and fear the Obama Democrats’ vast expansion of the size and scope of government, but who are not particularly conservative on cultural issues. But once again such voters are spread all over the country.

None of these groups is geographically concentrated and therefore amenable to Electoral College strategizing. In a period of open field politics, when the political balance is too unstable and political preferences volatile, party strategists will try to identify target states and constituencies as skillfully as the Obama campaign did in 2008, but with no assurance of similar success. The basic character of the two parties endures, but so far a new fulcrum point in electoral politics has not emerged.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute, senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, and a contributor to Fox News Channel. This is an expanded version of a paper presented at the final plenary session of the 2010 conference of the Historical Society at George Washington University.

FURTHER READING: Barone examines "America in an Age of Open Field Politics," argues that “Obama’s Policies Drag Down Democratic Governors,” claims the American electorate is “More Anti-Government than Anti-Incumbent,” welcomes the “The Return to Jeffersonian Vision and the Rejection of Progressivism” and asks “Why do Parties Last Longer in Britain?” 

 

Footnotes
1 Actually, each operates in ways that the Founders did not anticipate. The Electoral College was changed by the Twelfth Amendment, adopted after the election of 1800, in which the operation of a two-party system was undeniable and seemed liable to be a continuing phenomenon (although it disappeared between 1816 and 1828). Single-member districts were not mandated by the Constitution and were not part of the British system; electors to the House of Commons chose two members per district in all but five specified one-member districts. Twenty of the 65 members of the House in the First Congress were chosen at-large in the states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. As late as 1932, 42 of the 435 members of the House in the Seventy-Third Congress were chosen at-large in the states of Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, and Virginia; these states had lost members in the reapportionment following the 1930 Census and their legislatures had failed to draw new districts. New Mexico continued to elect its two members at-large up to 1966, for the Ninetieth Congress; only after that did Congress pass a law requiring single-member districts.
 2 The centrality of New York in national politics in this period is witnessed by the fact that both major parties’ presidential nominees in 1940 and 1944 had Manhattan residences within a few blocks of each other, Franklin Roosevelt on East 65th Street (owned by his mother until her death in 1941), Wendell Willkie on the museum blocks of Fifth Avenue (though he spent much time with his mistress Irita Van Doren on Central Park West) and Thomas Dewey on East 71st Street. Dwight Eisenhower, as president of Columbia University, had a residence in Manhattan in 1952; in 1956, his legal residence was his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (he also had a winter home in Palm Desert, California). 
3 Texas’s John Tower four times starting in 1961 (when many Texas liberals supported him on the theory they could beat him easily later); South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond six times starting in 1966 after he switched parties in 1964; Tennessee’s Howard Baker in 1966, 1972, and 1978 and Bill Brock in 1970; Florida’s Edward Gurney in 1968; North Carolina’s Jesse Helms five times starting in 1972; Virginia’s Bill Scott in 1972 and John Warner four times starting in 1978; Mississippi’s Thad Cochran in 1978 (a plurality win, with a black third-party candidate winning 23% of the vote). 
4 Of the 106 House seats in the 11 Confederate states, Republicans won only 16 in 1964, 23 in 1966, 26 in 1968, and 27 in 1970; Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy that year consisted of targeting seats in the Senate, not the House. After reapportionment, the 11 Confederate states had 108 seats: Republicans won only 34 in 1972, despite Nixon’s Southern sweep, and were reduced to 27 and 26 in the Democratic years of 1974 and 1976 (when a college professor from rural Georgia named Newt Gingrich lost his first two House races). Most Republican congressmen elected in these years were from urban areas or from border regions; few were from the Deep South (the prime exceptions being the 3 Alabamians swept in by Goldwater in 1964 who kept held their seats for years afterwards).

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