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Divided We Stand

Divided We Stand
New book about the 2020 election.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The State of the Parties

In Steve Schier's edited volume, Ambition and Division: Legacies of the George W. Bush Presidency, I have an essay titled "The Culminating Point."  It anticipates some items from today:

Michael Barone writes:
In three of the last four presidential elections, both parties have won between 47 and 51 percent of the vote. And in nine of the 11 House elections from 1994 to 2014,
Republicans won between 48 and 52 percent of the popular vote, and Democrats a bit less, between 45 and 49 percent.
Democrats have had the advantage in presidential elections because their clusters of base voters give them more safe electoral votes. Republicans have had the advantage in House and legislative elections because their voters are spread more evenly around the rest of the country.
To put this in historical perspective, neither party has really had a permanent majority for an extended period, as Sean Trende argues persuasively in his book "The Lost Majority." And the two political parties' coalitions over the years have been of a different character. The political cartoonists are right to portray them as two different animals.
The Republican Party has always been built around a demographic core of people considered by themselves and others to be typical Americans, even though they are not by themselves a majority. Northern Yankee Protestants in the 19th century, white married people today. When they come up with policies that have broader appeal beyond that core, they can win majorities. Otherwise, they can't.
The Democratic Party has always been a coalition of disparate groups that are different from the Republicans' core. Southern whites and Catholic immigrants in the 19th century; blacks and gentry liberals today. When they cohere, Democrats can win big majorities. When they split apart, the party is a disorderly rabble.
Jay Cost writes of the decay cycle of a party's fortunes.
Sean Trende and David Byler of Real Clear Politics have produced an interesting metric of party strength, combining the standing of each party in the White House, Congress, governorships, and state legislatures. Their data indicate that there have been seven full political cycles in the postwar era (from Eisenhower to George W. Bush). In five of them, the dominant party’s first White House victory was its high-water mark. In the other two, it was the reelection four years later. After that, the opposition party began improving, often substantially.
We are now in the seventh year of a Democratic cycle. So what is the Democrats’ best case scenario? While there is never a guarantee, a Democratic presidential victory in 2016 might facilitate some gains down-ballot, but these would likely be muted. Although it is quite possible that the Senate could return to the Democrats, it would be quite unlikely for them to win the 29 House seats needed to reclaim a majority in the lower chamber. Moreover, most governorships will not be up for grabs. While gains in state legislative seats would probably follow for Democrats, it is unlikely that they would come in large numbers.

Flash forward two more years, to 2018, and Democrats would still face the voters’ relentless impulse to hedge—which would probably facilitate Republican gains. Given the landscape in the Senate in 2018—where Democrats will have to defend a mind-boggling 25 of 33 seats—Democratic losses could be substantial in the upper chamber.

And there remains the specter of a recession. Economists are not projecting a downturn in 2015 or 2016. (As late as September 2008, economists polled by the Wall Street Journal still thought that the economy would grow at a 1.5 percent rate that year!) But a recession will come sooner or later. If the past is a guide, we are probably closer to the start of the next recession than we are to the end of the last one. What will Democrats do if they hold the White House during the next economic downturn?
The answer is simple: They will lose.