The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority: Realignment, Dealignment, and Electoral Change from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton

By David G. Lawrence | Go to book overview

5
The Emergence of the Second Mini-Realignment: Ideological Extremity and Democratic Defection*

The decline in Democratic electoral fortunes that began in 1968 has been noticed by many: the pattern and stability of Democratic failure was generally not perceived, but it was hard for even casual observers to miss the fact that the party that had won seven of the previous nine presidential elections now lost five of the next six. The burgeoning debate on realignment/dealignment undoubtedly contributed to the failure to appreciate that there was a pattern in the outcomes. Those seeking realignment saw repeated hints that a new party system was about to emerge, but the failure of all the other components of a new political order to fall into line caused them to underestimate the magnitude and stability of changes at the presidential level; those more attracted to dealignment focused on the failure of the realignment package as a whole and on the idiosyncratic 1976 election. Both failed to see that a stable pattern of presidential election outcomes could occur in the absence of the realignment package as a whole.

There was in fact considerable debate over the reasons underlying the Democratic defeats. One explanation, originating in work that appeared during the Nixon administration, focused on emergence of new issues on which the electorate was substantially more conservative than the Democratic party leadership. Kevin Phillips ( 1970) maintained that Democratic party elites were moving to the left on substantive issues at a time when the electorate was stable or moving to the right. Perception that the liberal policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had failed created a new conservative majority which found its natural home in the Republican party. Miller et al. ( 1976) found that issues played a considerable (if not decisive) role in the 1972 election, with McGovern's policy positions sufficiently to the left of both the average voter and the average Democrat for issues and ideology to contribute significantly to Nixon's victory.

This first generation of works explaining Democratic presidential election failure was criticized by many who looked for and failed to find the emerging conservative majority; rather, Democratic failure was attributed to the nomination of

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