Partisanship, Party Coalitions, and Group Support, 1952-2004

By Stanley, Harold W.; Niemi, Richard G. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Partisanship, Party Coalitions, and Group Support, 1952-2004


Stanley, Harold W., Niemi, Richard G., Presidential Studies Quarterly


From the beginning of the New Deal to the end of the twentieth century, partisan conflict revolved predominantly around the fight for support among native white southerners, members of labor union and working-class households, African Americans, Jews, and Catholics--the classic elements of the New Deal coalition. By late in the century, however, southern conservatives increasingly aligned their ideology with their voting habits, labor union membership went into a steep decline, blacks began to be outnumbered by Hispanics, religious denomination gave way to church attendance as the significant divide, and gender became an important factor. The battle for partisan support began to take on new dimensions with the approach of the new century.

The nature of coalition support was not instantly changed, however, and the extent of the new divide is not altogether clear. The uncertainty surrounding the Hispanic vote in the 2004 presidential election is a prime manifestation of the uncertainty about the shape of party coalitions; data from exit polls and other surveys gave sharply contrasting pictures of the extent of Hispanic support for President Bush (Leal et al. 2005). Widening differences in state-level support for the Republican candidate have also been observed, suggesting changes in Hispanic loyalties (DeSipio and Uhlaner 2005, 14). More generally, the emphasis on moral values was an important factor in the presidential race, yet it threatened to divide both parties--moderate, more secular Republicans from conservative, more religious ones, and socially conservative Democrats from those with consistently liberal beliefs (Beyond Red vs. Blue 2005, 20-26). Likewise, concerns with national security, the war on terror, and the war in Iraq cut across groups in the partisan divide (Beyond Red vs. Blue 2005, 20-26). Meanwhile, declining employment opportunities for less skilled workers, often blamed on Republican-led free trade pacts, may have revived support for Democrats among union and lower-income households.

Efforts to establish new group appeals have been intensified in light of two extremely close presidential races, continuing battles for control of Congress and state governments, and bitter fights over judicial nominees, tax policies, and moral/religious issues. Even while the competitiveness of individual districts has declined (Macedo et al. 2005, 45-46), the battle for control of legislative branches and dominance of the judiciary continues at full tilt. In many of these elections and in the issue campaigns surrounding them, Republicans have worked especially hard to attract Latinos and to solidify their support among evangelical Christians. Democrats, meanwhile, have largely been in a reactive mode, fighting to retain majority support from Latinos (as well as blacks) and to position themselves as moderates rather than extremists.

The electoral outcomes since 1990 reveal Democratic and Republican gains marked by partisan volatility. The fortunes of the political parties have surged and declined as success, failure, and recovery have characterized both the Republicans and Democrats. In 1991, Republican President George H. W. Bush set historic records in presidential approval; the following year he could not even secure reelection against Bill Clinton, who campaigned as a "New Democrat" and secured the first Democratic presidential victory since 1976. Clinton's presidential win in 1992 was in turn followed by a resounding Republican victory in 1994 when they gained majority control of the House of Representatives for the first time in over forty years. Clinton bounced back to trounce Republican Bob Dole in 1996, but Democrats were unable to retake control of either the House or Senate. Despite presidential impeachment proceedings, the president's party gained House seats in the 1998 midterm elections, the first time this had happened in over a half-century. But two years later, in a context of economic prosperity and peace ordinarily conducive to keeping the incumbent party in power, partisan contests ended in a virtual tie in the presidential vote and composition of the House and Senate, with Republicans (barely) controlling all three. …

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