Jennifer Marsico: This Election Has Not 'Realigned' the Country





[Ms. Marsico is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute and a researcher/writer for the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project.]

With Barack Obama's victory and Democratic gains in Congress, more than a few commentators are talking about that "r" word so important in presidential politics -- "realignment." Was 2008 a realigning election? I don't think so.

The academic discussion of realignment began with V.O. Key's seminal 1955 essay "A Theory of Critical Elections." Key wrote that critical or realigning elections exhibit high voter interest and realigning voter turnout, as well as a shift in the dominant political ideology. Most often cited is FDR's victory over Hoover in 1932, which started a decades-long period of Democratic dominance. Americans tended to support government intervention in their lives to a greater degree than before the Great Depression. Hence, there had been a fundamental ideological shift.

Today, our elections are more candidate- than policy-centered, and detecting a seismic policy shift has become more difficult.

Still, many analysts compare 2008 to the 1980 election -- and it is true they have some similarities. Both Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan are seen as transformational figures. Both are thought of as Washington outsiders who would bring needed change in a time of domestic crisis. Both energized their party bases and attracted new voters.

But there's another similarity that disqualifies both contests from constituting a realigning election: The elections turned on their predecessors. Reagan's sound bite "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" encapsulated what his campaign was about. The election was a referendum on Jimmy Carter's performance, and voters rejected it.

And 2008? George W. Bush's failures hung over the campaign. ...

Mr. Obama won by portraying the Bush presidency as a series of mistakes that need to be avoided in the future -- essentially encouraging voters to think about the short-term past, not the long-term future.

Put another way, Mr. Obama got about 40,000 fewer votes in Ohio than John Kerry got four years ago. Mr. Obama carried the state when Mr. Kerry did not because Republicans stayed home. Nationally, the anticipated record turnout didn't materialize. About the same percentage of registered voters came out this year as in 2004. And was that a realignment year?

In the same way that 1980 did not yield a generation-long period of Republican dominance, those on the right can take heart that 2008 does not represent the beginning of an era of Democratic supremacy.


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