A New Political Era: The 2016-2020 Realignment Is Underway

Voting booths in polling place
Voting booths in polling place

In 1928, despite Democrat Al Smith's loss to Republican Herbert Hoover, political scientists found critical changes in American electoral and demographic patterns that began the reversal of the three decade Republican lock on party identification. These changes led to a restructuring and realignment of the major American political parties that lasted for generations. I believe that the 2016 and 2020 elections can repeat the sequence of the 1928 and 1932 resulting in sustained Democratic political domination and a potential long-term hemorrhage of Republican party support on the national level.

There are three reasons for the realignment that is already underway. First, the new demography of the United States is dramatically changing party identification and the current Republican Party doesn't look or think like the new America. Second, the Trump phenomenon has ruptured the Republican political brand and accelerated the party's fatal weaknesses with the expanding constituencies of this new America. Third, the coincidence of the 2020 decennial census and a presidential election will swell Democratic turnout for down ballot elections of Governors and state legislatures that will subsequently redistrict the House of Representatives for a decade.

The 1928 campaign of Governor Al Smith of New York expanded the demography of the Democratic Party to embrace urban voters, workers, blacks, academics, the senior citizens and Jews. The campaign began to uproot the Republican political dominance that had been in place since 1896. Political scientists label 1928 a "critical election" because it signaled the beginning of a structural change that culminated in the 1932 "realigning" election of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt.

Data on the American electorate since 1988 shows a dramatic demographic shift that has now reached critical mass: the white electorate has shrunk from 88% of overall turnout to an anticipated 69% this year. Blacks, Hispanics and Asians are expected to comprise 31% of the 2016 electorate, with Hillary Clinton expected to receive between 80-92% of the non-white vote. Voters under 30 have single digit support for the Republican ticket and single women are repudiating not only Trump, but traditional Republican ideology by dramatic margins. These increasingly powerful demographic constituencies identify and vote significantly Democratic, thus making a Republican national election victory -- even if Republicans had a strong, non-controversial candidate -- improbable.

The Republican Party conducted an "autopsy" after its 2012 defeat. That RNC report concluded that the Party must reach out, programmatically and symbolically, to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and women. Yet, the only response by Republican State parties to these recommendations has been not to reach out to these growing constituencies, but rather to adopt voter suppression legislation to prevent them from voting. And as the Republican base of old white men dies off, the demographic base of the Democratic Party continues to attract the expanding constituencies of the new American electorate.

The votes of the Electoral College states that consistently vote Democratic has now swelled to a reliable 244, just 26 electoral votes from the majority needed to win. For Republican presidential candidates to prevail in the Electoral College, they must thread the needle of marginal "purple" states, needing to win ALL of them to succeed.

Current demography makes a Republican win increasingly difficult, exacerbating recent historical trends. In the last six presidential elections Republicans have lost the popular vote five times. They prevailed in the Electoral College in 2000 and 2004 with 284 and 286 Electoral College votes, a margin of 14 and 16 electoral votes out of 538. In the last four elections won by Democrats, they received 370 Electoral College votes in 1992, 379 in 1996, 365 in 2008 and 332 in 2012, margins of victory ranging from 52 to 109. Democrats can afford to lose almost all purple states and still top 270.

The Trump-ization of the Republican Party in 2016 makes the future of the party even more problematic. The outlook for Trump's candidacy points to the same losing Electoral College pattern -- or worse -- with even the "red" states of NC, AR, GA and MO now in play. And demographic projections currently predict that Texas, the most critical Republican prize of all, with 32 electoral votes, will slip from "red" to "purple" to "blue" within two cycles as a result of of the rapid acceleration of the Hispanic electorate. When -- not if -- Texas turns blue, the Republicans, under the best of conditions, will cease to be a competitive national political party in presidential elections.

But what about the future control of the House of Representatives? The Republicans, principally because of skillful redistricting, have a 30-vote majority. This is where the coincidence of the census and presidential elections comes into play. The Republican Party, in the tsunami of the 2010 midterm election, took control of 22 state legislatures. In the reliably blue states of MI, PA and WI, Republicans seized control of the redistricting process. They also controlled redistricting in the purple states of OH, FL and NC. In these six states combined, the Republicans gerrymandered the map to create 34 new (and non-competitive) safe Republican House seats.

For example, as a result of this off-year election gerrymandering, in blue Pennsylvania Republicans control 13 of the 18 House seats despite the fact that Democrats cast 100,000 more popular votes for House candidates than Republicans in 2014. In Florida, Republicans have 63% of the House seats, in Michigan 64%, in OH 75% in NC 77% and in WI 63%. A Democratic controlled redistricting in some or all of these states after the 2020 elections and census could very well reverse party control of the House of Representatives for at least a decade.

All of these factors make it reasonable to predict that 2016-2020 will give political scientists what they have not seen for almost a century: a "critical election" (2016) followed by a "realigning election" (2020) resulting in Democratic domination on the national level of the emerging era of American politics.