Constituencies and Concerns
"Stripped of all its rich variation, realignment theory comes down to the notion that something happens and the public responds" ( Carmines, Renten, and Stimson 1984: 545). That simple premise is the basis of the following analysis. In this case, the something may be complex and dynamic, involving protracted shifts of party constituencies and policy concerns, but the presumption is that differences between parties eventually register with the public and the electorate changes its political alignment.
Much of the analysis of changes in electoral realignments in American politics has focused on relatively abrupt changes ( Key 1955; Shafer 1991). My concern, however, is with gradual, secular changes ( Key 1959: 198-199). The argument is that over time Republicans and Democrats have experienced shifts in their electoral bases that have changed the policy concerns and positions of each party. 1 These changing party policy positions have altered electoral perceptions of which party is seen as more conservative or more liberal. Specifically, Republicans have come to be seen as relatively more conservative and Democrats as relatively more liberal. The parties have adopted increasingly divergent positions on class-related issues, with the result that the less and more affluent differ in which party they support.
The dynamics of party differentiation, public perception, and electoral reaction should not be presumed to be precise. The "processes operate inexorably, and almost imperceptibly, election after election to form new party alignments and to build new party groupings" ( Key 1959: 198-199). The media often do not treat party differences as meaningful and they are not inclined to convey information about substantive differences between the parties ( Patterson 1994). Campaign coverage is often focused more on shortterm controversies than debates about evolving policy issues and party differences. Party candidates recognize that and often focus more on some issue that will provide short-term advantages. Further, much of the public does not follow politics closely ( Flanigan and Zingale 1998: 143-163). Party