Polls and Elections: The New Deal Realignment in Real Time

By Norpoth, Helmut; Sidman, Andrew H. et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Polls and Elections: The New Deal Realignment in Real Time


Norpoth, Helmut, Sidman, Andrew H., Suong, Clara H., Presidential Studies Quarterly


American politics in the 1930s underwent an electoral realignment, traces of which can still be felt today. The Great Depression was the proximate cause that toppled the Republicans as the dominant party, a status it had enjoyed in national politics since the Civil War, and very comfortably so since the 1890s. Along with the New Deal, the economic crisis installed the Democrats as the newly dominant party in the American electorate for years to come. This is a familiar story, based on surveys conducted long after the events. But as we demonstrate with a "real-time" analysis of party loyalties in the 1930s and 1940s, the Depression and New Deal fell short of giving the Democratic Party a secure lead in the partisan loyalties of ordinary Americans. It was World War II and postwar prosperity that transformed the partisan balance heavily in the Democratic favor. If any particular election may claim a critical role in this electoral realignment, it is the 1948 election. It marks the moment when the Democratic lead in party identification reaches the magnitude that would be recorded in the National Election Studies for decades to come. The Democratic surge in party identification is fueled by the entry into the electorate of a generation that came of age during the 1940s.

We reach these conclusions with the help of survey data on party identification that the Gallup Organization began collecting in early 1937. From that point on until 1952, when the National Election Studies entered the field, nearly 200 opinion surveys were conducted (all but a few by Gallup) that asked about party identification. (1) They comprise a pool of close to half a million respondents. This data set has remained unexplored by students of electoral behavior, except for attention to a scattered survey here or there. Research about party identification as it may have existed in the 1930s or earlier has largely been limited to survey data that were conducted long after the event. The main source, the National Election Studies, did not commence in earnest until 1952. Using such latter-day data to capture attitudes such as party identification 20 years or more in the past requires strong faith in questionable assumptions.

The 1937-52 pool of polls provides an invaluable opportunity to establish the timing of the "New Deal realignment" as it unfolded, the circumstances that generated it, and how much it owed to conversion and generational replacement. Our findings help illuminate the nature and dynamics of historic change in party identification. They also speak to the utility of the realignment concept, which has lost much of its luster in recent years. And finally, the evidence of a major shift of party identification in 1948 should dispel any lingering mystery about Harry Truman's upset victory in the presidential election that year.

We begin with a review of research on the New Deal realignment, noting shortcomings of the evidence for the timing and process of partisan change. Second, we describe the sampling procedure and partisanship measure used by the Gallup polls that provided the bulk of our data; the measure proves a close match for the one used by the National Election Studies. Third, we track aggregate party identification over the course of 1937-52, locating the point in time at which the Democratic lead reaches the magnitude recorded by the National Election Studies beginning in 1952. Fourth, we probe for causal effects of economic conditions and World War II on fluctuations of aggregate partisanship. Fifth, we disaggregate partisanship by birth year to see which age cohort exhibits the strongest movement toward the Democratic Party and how well the various cohorts maintain their partisanship across the years when the polls were conducted (1937-52). Sixth, we probe for a special legacy of World War II on partisanship by examining the effect of wartime service, especially among young veterans. We conclude with a reassessment of the realignment concept. …

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