Tonight’s election results will produce the usual rush to judgment by pundits and partisans alike. Given the magnitude of the projected GOP gains, the polls probably won’t even be closed in any state before at least one person in both of those groups begins to stay that this is the start of a realignment in U.S. politics that will last for generations.
Anyone who uses “realignment” tonight, tomorrow, or in the next few months to characterize the 2010 election will either be guessing or spinning.
It may well be a realignment, but anyone who uses that word tonight, tomorrow, or in the next few months to characterize the 2010 election will either be guessing or spinning. The fact is that there’s no way to know until long after it occurs — and I’m talking about years rather than hours after an election — that a political realignment has happened.
Realigning elections in the U.S. have three primary characteristics.
First, and most obviously, some block of voters switches its support from one political party to another. The change of many previously Republican-loyal voters to the Democratic party in 1932 and the change of blue collar workers from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1980 are two of the best examples.
Second, the switch is not a one-time event and is not tied to a single issue or candidate. For a realignment to occur, the change in voting loyalty happens repeatedly over the subsequent elections.
Third, the switch occurs up and down the ballot. For a true realignment to occur, the change in voting has to show up not just at the top of the ticket — for president or governor, for example — but for state representatives, county and city council, judge, sheriff, and dog catcher.
Based on this, there is no way to know tonight, tomorrow, or by the time Meet The Press or any of the other Sunday talk shows air this weekend that the projected large GOP gains are, in fact, a political realignment. We’ll only know that after the next three or so local and national elections whether the voting changes that may occur in 2010 are repeated at all levels of government.
For all of those who tonight insist that there’s no reason to wait to confirm that the changes in voting are real and permanent and, therefore, a political realignment, remember that some were just as eager to use that word after the 2008 election.