Realignment, Now More than Ever
The next best thing to a permanent majority

The Weekly Standard, November 22, 2004, Volume 10, Issue 10


Karl Rove said last year that the question of realignment--whether Republicans have at last become the majority party--would be decided by the election of 2004. And it has. Even by the cautious reckoning of Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, Republicans now have both an operational majority in Washington (control of the White House, Senate, and the House of Representatives) and an ideological majority in the country (51 percent popular vote for a center-right president). They also control a majority of governorships, a plurality of state legislatures, and are at rough parity with Democrats in the number of state legislators. Rove says that under Bush a "rolling realignment" favoring Republicans continues, and he's right. So Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades.

Listen to Walter Dean Burnham, professor emeritus at University of Texas at Austin, who is the nation's leading theorist of realignment, the shift of political power from one party to another. The 2004 election, he says, "consolidates it all"--that is, it solidifies the trend that has favored Republicans over the past decade. To Burnham, it means there's "a stable pattern" of Republican rule. "If Republicans keep playing the religious card along with the terrorism card, this could last a long time," he says. Burnham, by the way, is neither a Republican nor a conservative.

His definition of realignment is "a sudden transformation that turns out to be permanent." The breakthrough occurred in 1994 when Republicans shattered the 40-year Democratic grip on Congress and the statehouses. Since then, the GOP has held its gains, and even added to them in the 2002 and 2004 elections with George W. Bush as president and Rove as strategist. Burnham says the 2004 election "may be the most important of my lifetime." (He's 75.) The reelection of Bush plus pickups in the Senate and House was "a very, very impressive showing, given the past." Democrats will have enormous difficulty overcoming "the huge weight of Republican strength," he says.

Republicans gained four Senate seats, giving them 55, bringing their numbers back to the historic high they'd reached in the late '90s. (The last time Republicans had more than 55 seats in the Senate was 1931.) They won three more House seats and are expected to capture at least one of the two seats at stake in runoff elections in Louisiana in December. That will give them 232 or 233 seats, the most they've held since 1949. In 1992, the year before realignment began, they held 44 seats in the Senate and 167 in the House. Republican governorships have jumped from 18 in 1992 to 28 or 29 today, depending on the outcome of the governor's race in Washington state, and control of legislatures has risen from 8 to 20.

What hasn't emerged is the much-touted "emerging Democratic majority." It remains a theory of liberal analysts John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, based on their take on voting patterns of women, urban professionals, and Hispanics. The theory faltered in 2002 and even more this year. The gender gap in the presidential race dropped from an 11-point Democratic advantage among female voters in 2000 to a 3-point edge in 2004. And Ken Mehlman, the president's campaign manager, said the Bush vote in urban centers of more than 500,000 people grew by 26 percent in 2004 over 2000.

But Latinos are the big realignment story of 2004. They comprised only 8 percent of the electorate this year, but are growing rapidly as a voting bloc and are already an important factor in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, and several other states. The Republican share grew from 21 percent in 1996 to 35 percent in 2000 and to 42 percent this year. The flip side is that Democrats lost Latino voters, falling from 72 percent in 1996 to 62 percent in 2000, then to 54 percent in 2004. Burnham speculates that Hispanics are attracted to the entrepreneurial bent and traditional values of Republicans.

Meanwhile, the South continued to be reliable turf for Republican gains. Republicans overcame a 102-75 Democratic majority to take control of the Georgia House, after having won the state senate in 2002. In Florida, they picked up a statehouse seat in Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale), one of the most Democratic counties in the country. Democrats haven't added any seats in the Florida legislature since 1982. Of course, the most striking gains were the five U.S. Senate seats in the South won by Republicans. "The southern seats are probably never going back," says Burnham.

For Republican rule to endure, Rove makes the obvious point that Bush and the Republican Congress must govern together. Mehlman goes further, insisting Bush's "ownership society" agenda will lock in millions of voters by "changing the incentives of politics." From the 1930s on, a majority of voters were united around the New Deal idea that "federal power would improve their lives," Mehlman says. That insured Democratic majorities. Now, Social Security, tax, and tort reform may do the same for Republicans by giving Americans more control over their income and wealth. "When [those reforms] become law," Mehlman says, "a constituency will develop behind them. That's the New Deal" all over again, this time for the Republican party.

Rove, leery of claiming too much for Republicans, said on Meet the Press on November 7 that "there are no permanent majorities in American politics." This is true, but some last longer than others. Burnham, however, sees little chance of change for years. For Republicans to slip into minority status again, he says, it would take a monumental party split like that in 1912 or "a colossal increase in the pain level" of Americans as happened with the Great Depression. Neither is likely.