Ten Miles Square

Blog

April 24, 2014 2:14 PM Why Neither Party Has a Political Edge

By Jonathan Bernstein

What Jonathan Chait says seems to be becoming conventional wisdom. That doesn’t make it true:

We appear to have entered a period in which Democrats command a normal advantage in presidential elections. That doesn’t mean Democrats will dominate Congress — both the House and Senate maps geographically favor Republicans, and Democratic constituents reliably fail to turn out during midterm elections. It also doesn’t mean Democrats will always win a national election. Republicans probably held such an advantage from 1968 through at least 1988, but right in the midst of that period, the Watergate scandal created a massive Democratic wave in 1974 and a narrow Democratic win two years later. A major scandal or a recession would almost surely hand Republicans the White House. Still, it seems to be the case that the Republican coalition in its present form cannot win a presidential election without a major tailwind. There’s no solid evidence for this. At best, it’s the other way around: There may be a very mild Democratic edge in presidential elections, but the circumstances of each cycle almost certainly will overwhelm it. The same was true in the earlier era of Republican presidential victories, when local circumstances, not structural advantage, played the decisive role.

There probably is no election in the postwar era that is attributable to an underlying partisan majority. And starting in 1980, there’s nothing in the margins of victory that suggests a partisan majority explanation. Just think of the recent ones. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 after a recession, and won re-election when the economy was good and the nation was at peace. Democrats won in 2008 after Iraq and a deep recession; and Barack Obama held the White House after the economy began a recovery. But that doesn’t imply any kind of solid Democratic majority, as Al Gore discovered in 2000 (when, if anything, the fundamentals slightly favored him) and John Kerry found out in 2004.

In which of the elections from 1992 through 2012 did the Democratic candidate do better than one would expect for a 50/50 electorate? None.

There’s no clear evidence of a significant partisan advantage in subnational elections, either . Even simple indicators don’t behave the way they would if there was a real Democratic edge. For example, nothing in Obama’s approval ratings suggests a solid Democratic majority.

This could change, mainly if demographic change combines with self-destructive Republican policies. But for now, the most likely answer is that the U.S. became a 50/50 nation around 1980, after the Democrats’ New Deal majority faded, and it’s still a 50/50 nation today.

(For more along these lines, see John Sides here and here; for the alternative view, see Alan Abramowitz here.)


[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

Comments

(You may use HTML tags for style)

comments powered by Disqus