As the campaign season develops, we are likely to hear about how difficult it is for a political party to hold the White House for more than eight years and how this will give the eventual Republican nominee a tremendous advantage in the general election. Indeed, we are already hearing about predictive models that rely on assumptions about how voters develop a kind of partisan fatigue over time and reward the out party in an effort to quench their thirst for something new. Because any model is only as good as its assumptions, I thought this might be a good time to take a look back to see how well partisan fatigue describes the outcomes of prior elections in order to determine how much stock we should put in it this year. Be forewarned: this is a long post and it indulges in historical and social science analysis (although it is written in plain English).
The main evidence for partisan fatigue is rooted in the pattern of elections from 1952 through 2004, a long stretch of time that includes the most recent election cycles. During that 56-year period, only once did a party hold the White House for more than two consecutive terms, during the twelve-year run of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Jimmy Carter’s single term is also an outlier. Otherwise, the pattern during this period is clear: two Republican terms followed by two Democratic terms. If you want add the 2008 and 2012 elections to the mix, you can extend the pattern through the Obama years and be fairly confident that the Republicans are on deck for the next eight.
But an entirely different pattern emerges if you look at the data through the lens of party systems. Political scientists who study American political parties like to think in terms of enduring periods of competition between pairs of parties composed of stable groups of supporters, or party systems. These systems can endure for three or four decades until new issues emerge that scramble the coalitions. At some point when the parties as constituted can no longer function as governing entities, the coalitions realign and a new party system emerges from the ashes of the old. While there is a great deal of disagreement over how these realignments take place, political scientists generally agree that there have been six identifiable party systems dating back to the creation of formal political parties in 1800.
Each party system has had a dominant party and a weaker challenger, and the dominant party holds the White House most of the time. In fact, the record isn’t even close. Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans won all seven presidential elections contested during the First Party System. Andrew Jackson’s Democrats were 6-2 during the Second. Lincoln’s Republicans went 7-2 during the Third, and McKinley’s Republicans duplicated this record following a realignment that left the Republican Party as the dominant partner in the Fourth Party System. Democrats were 7-2 during the New Deal alignment of the Fifth Party System. Sustained victories were harder to come by for the majority Republicans of the Sixth, when the weakening of partisan ties made for what is probably best described as a “dealigned” electorate containing a large pool of voters without strong allegiances. Still, Republicans won seven of ten elections between 1968 and 2004.
Perhaps even more telling is how challenger parties in these alignments managed to pick off their few victories. With few exceptions, they ascended to power one of three ways. They temporarily overrode existing political preferences by nominating heroic military figures like Dwight Eisenhower or the only two Whig candidates to win a general election, William Henry Harrison (“Old Tippecanoe”) and Zachary Taylor. They took advantage of a schism in the majority party. Or they rose to power on a lasting basis as the majority party in a new party system.
In fact, since 1800 there have been only three elections where a challenger party won without the benefit of one of these three conditions: the two Grover Cleveland elections of 1884 and 1892, which took place during a rare moment of excruciatingly close contests, and Jimmy Carter’s slender victory over unelected incumbent Gerald Ford in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
Consecutive Party Victories Since 1800
|Party System||Year||Majority Party||Minority Party|
|2||1828||3 (D) - REALIGNMENT|
|1 (Whig) - NOMINATED GENERAL|
|1 (Whig) - NOMINATED GENERAL|
|3||1860||6 (R) - REALIGNMENT|
|4||1896||4 (R) - REALIGNMENT|
|2 (D) - PARTY SPLIT|
|5||1932||5 (D) - REALIGNMENT|
|2 (R) - NOMINATED GENERAL|
|6||1968||2 (R) - DEALIGNMENT|
|2 (D) - PARTY SPLIT|
|?||2008||2 (D) - ???|
Returning to our question about partisan fatigue, what would the party system perspective say about the likelihood of Republicans winning the White House his year? The answer to that question rests with another assumption – about what happened in 2008. The past two cycles witnessed a deviation from the previous ten, as Barack Obama was elected with a new coalition of voters. The “emerging electorate” of Millennials, voters of color and single women that twice carried him to victory shares little with the Democrat’s New Deal coalition of the Fifth Party System. Likewise, Obama’s Electoral College map hardly resembles the patchwork of states that Bill Clinton carried in the three-way contests of 1992 and 1996. If 2008 was a realigning election and Obama’s voters constitute an enduring presidential coalition ready to vote for any Democratic nominee, then history would suggest that Democrats are more likely to benefit from the allegiance of this new coalition than suffer the consequences of partisan fatigue. History also suggests that parties experience their longest stretch of consecutive victories at the start of a new party system.
But is that what’s happening? After all, Republicans are deeply entrenched at the state level, control the Senate and have historically large majorities in the House. Chris Bowers and I wrestle with this question in our upcoming book Next Generation Netroots, where we contend that lasting changes are taking place in our political system but the evidence is as yet too inconclusive to say which way the pendulum will tip. We may be experiencing the sort of slow motion, long-term changes that broke through the surface with Nixon’s narrow 1968 election. That was the start of the Republican’s long presidential run, although legislative and statewide victories remained elusive for years.
As they like to say on election night, it is too early to call. But something atypical is happening in 2016. We are already seeing evidence that the Republican Party has become home to two incompatible groups – conservatives and reactionaries – and as such is functioning as though it is two different parties. This, too, could scramble voting patterns. So be cautious about assumptions based on how voters behave in ordinary years. And remember there are often multiple ways of looking at data.