The Great Party Switch


The Great Party Switch

From 1968 through 1992, Republicans tended to control the White House. Since then, they’ve more frequently controlled Congress, which has moved them even more to the right.

February 18, 2015

This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of  The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.


The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House

By Thomas F. Schaller

368 pp. Yale University Press. $32.50


Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation

By Matt Barreto and Gary Segura

304 pp. PublicAffairs Books. $26.99


Recent national election results have followed a clear pattern. Since 1992, Democratic candidates have won four of six presidential elections and the popular vote for president five times out of six. Only George W. Bush’s narrow re-election victory in 2004 has interrupted the recent string of Democratic popular-vote successes. Over the same period, however, Republicans have won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives in nine of twelve elections and a majority of seats in the Senate in six of 12 elections, with one election, in 2000, resulting in a 50-50 tie. Democrats have controlled both chambers of Congress for only six of the past 22 years.

This pattern of Democratic domination of presidential elections, along with Republican domination of congressional and especially House elections, represents a complete reversal of the pattern that prevailed during the previous four decades. Between 1952 and 1988, Republican candidates won seven of ten presidential elections. Five of those victories produced double-digit popular vote margins.

Of the three Democratic presidential victories in that time, only one—Lyndon Johnson’s triumph over Barry Goldwater in 1964—resulted in a double-digit margin. During this era of Republican domination of the presidency, however, Democrats won a majority of seats in the House in 17 of 18 elections and a majority of seats in the Senate in 14 of 18 elections. Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress for 34 of the 40 years from 1954 through 1994.

Two new books, Tom Schaller’s The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House, and Matt Barreto and Gary Segura’s Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation, each tell part of the story of recent trends in American electoral politics. Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a political columnist for The Baltimore Sun, attempts to explain the dramatic shift in party fortunes since the 1980s, arguing that growing domination of the GOP by its congressional wing, and especially its increasingly conservative House caucus, has damaged the Republican image among younger voters, women, and minorities and thereby undermined its ability to compete in presidential elections.

Barreto and Segura—professors of political science at the University of Washington and Stanford University, respectively, and the principals of Latino Decisions, widely considered the nation’s leading Latino-oriented polling firm—focus on the rise of the Latino electorate since the 1980s. Their work also sheds considerable light on the broader electoral trends described by Schaller, especially Democratic successes in recent presidential elections.


The Transformation of the Republican Party

In his 2006 book, Whistling Past Dixie, Tom Schaller argued that Democrats could win back the White House only by writing off the South and nominating a progressive candidate who could unite a new coalition of white liberals, African Americans, Hispanics, and union members. Such a candidate, Schaller argued, could win a majority of electoral votes without any states south of the Mason–Dixon Line. It was a provocative thesis that appealed to many liberal Democrats unhappy about the influence of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council during the Clinton years.

Only two years later, Schaller’s thesis was seemingly confirmed by Barack Obama’s election. In 2008, Obama actually carried three of the eleven states of the old Confederacy—Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina—but he would have won without their electoral votes. Of course, an economy in free fall and Bush’s unpopularity aided Obama’s election. It is far from clear whether a liberal northern Democrat, especially an African American, could have won the presidency under less favorable circumstances. Nevertheless, Obama’s re-election in 2012 by a reduced but still decisive margin in the popular vote seemed to confirm Schaller’s thesis that Democrats no longer needed to nominate moderate southerners like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to win the presidency.

With The Stronghold, Schaller has produced another book about recent trends in American electoral politics that will undoubtedly provoke considerable debate among both scholars and political practitioners. Schaller’s thesis is that in Republican politics, the congressional tail has been wagging the presidential dog for the past two decades. During the late 1980s, Republican congressional leaders, most notably former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, developed a strategy for winning over conservative white voters in the South and elsewhere who had been voting for Republican presidential candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan but had continued to vote for moderate-to-conservative Democrats for Congress. That strategy involved waging all-out partisan war against Democratic leaders and eventually getting almost all Republican House candidates to sign on to the “Contract with America” to clarify party differences and thereby nationalize the 1994 congressional elections.

Yale University Press

Gingrich’s strategy paid big dividends for the Republicans that year, when they captured control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in more than 40 years. For the next 12 years, Republicans kept control, winning House and Senate majorities in six consecutive elections. It was quite a turnaround for a party that had been widely viewed by scholars and pundits, and by many of its own officeholders, as condemned to minority status for the foreseeable future. So dramatic was this reversal that Schaller sees Gingrich as more important to the modern Republican Party than the man usually credited with its revival, Ronald Reagan.

In truth, Gingrich’s and Reagan’s contributions to the modern Republican Party are hard to separate. By repositioning the GOP on cultural issues such as abortion so as to appeal to white evangelicals, Reagan started the ideological realignment that Gingrich and his allies reinforced. Without Reagan, it is doubtful that Gingrich could have achieved as much as he did. Schaller’s argument is that by helping to shift the Republican Party even more sharply to the right, Gingrich succeeded in making the GOP once and for all the dominant party in the South. What the Gingrichites did not foresee, however, was that the growing conservatism of their party would alienate large numbers of moderate-to-liberal Republicans and independents in the Northeast, the industrial Midwest, and the Pacific Coast, contributing to a gradual realignment of many states in those regions. As a result of this realignment, every state in the Northeast and every state on the Pacific Coast except Alaska voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and today the large majority of House members and senators from those states are Democrats.


Demographic Shift

There was something else that the Gingrich Republicans did not anticipate—the demographic transformation of the American electorate. Between the election of Clinton in 1992 and of Obama in 2008, the non-white share of the electorate doubled, going from 13 percent to 26 percent. It rose again, to 28 percent in 2012, and is expected to continue growing by about two percentage points every four years for the foreseeable future. Without this demographic transformation, Obama could never have won the presidency: His performance among whites and nonwhites in 2008 would have made him a decisive popular-vote loser if the demographic makeup of the electorate had been the same in 2008 as it had been in 1992.

By far the most important factor contributing to this demographic transformation has been the growing voting power of Latinos. This is the remarkable story that Matt Barreto and Gary Segura document in Latino America. Many of the book’s individual chapters were co-authored with graduate students or research associates at Latino Decisions; some were published earlier as stand-alone articles in political science journals. But this book is clearly intended for non-academic readers as well as scholars. It provides readers with a clear road map to understanding America’s rising Latino electorate—its size and composition, social and political beliefs, and electoral participation.

Barreto and Segura, along with their co-authors, take pains to knock down some common stereotypes about Latino voters—especially the belief that Latinos’ partisan orientations and voting behavior are strongly influenced by their religiosity and social conservatism. The authors clearly demonstrate that Latinos’ party attachments and voting choices are based overwhelmingly on their economic concerns and views of the role of government. They also demonstrate that Latinos are keenly aware of the positions of presidential candidates and other party leaders on the issue of immigration reform, especially the treatment of the 11 million–plus undocumented immigrants, mostly of Latino origin, currently in the United States.

PublicAffairs Books

Based on their socioeconomic characteristics and liberal views of government, the large majority of Latinos have traditionally supported the Democratic Party and its candidates. But that support has varied considerably from election to election. According to Barreto and Segura, a majority of Latinos have voted for a Republican candidate at least once, and as recently as 2004, George W. Bush won about 40 percent of Latino votes. Since then, however, Republicans have seen their share of the Latino vote fall steadily; in 2012, only 23 percent of Latinos voted for Mitt Romney.

A number of factors contributed to Romney’s poor showing among Latinos. His positions on economic issues, which became markedly more conservative during the Republican primaries, were out of step with the preferences of the large majority of Latinos. Romney’s call for “self-deportation,” that is, making life for undocumented immigrants so miserable that they would go back to their home countries on their own, undoubtedly also cost him Latino support. Barreto and Segura estimate that Obama’s popular-vote margin among Latinos in 2012 was greater than his overall popular-vote margin in the nation—the first time Latinos have ever provided the margin of victory to a presidential candidate.

Romney’s weak showing among Latinos was a clear warning sign to Republican leaders and strategists. Immediately following the election, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus created a task force to examine the causes of the GOP defeat and recommend changes in the party’s approach. One of the group’s key recommendations was that the GOP adopt a more moderate position on the issue of immigration reform, moving away from an emphasis on deportation to an acceptance of some form of legalization and perhaps eventual citizenship for a large portion of the undocumented population.

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

High school students, from left, Jessica Tejada, Vanessa Bonventura and Bianca Salazar, work to get out the vote as part of a class civics program in the heavily Latino East Boston neighborhood of Boston, Tuesday, November 2, 2004. 

For the past two years, the Republican Party has not taken that advice, and it is not going to take it anytime soon. Although 14 Senate Republicans voted for a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 that would have provided legal status and a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, Republican leaders in the House have refused to allow that bill to come to a vote on the floor and have failed to produce any immigration legislation of their own. GOP leaders were also uniformly hostile to Obama’s announcement in November that in the absence of legislative action he would use his executive authority to delay deporting as many as four million undocumented immigrants for three years and allow many of them to obtain work permits.

As a result of Obama’s actions, it’s likely that immigration reform will be front and center in the 2016 Republican primaries and that GOP candidates will compete to see who can take the toughest stand against any policy that can be labeled “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. This is the position of most Republicans in the Senate and the vast majority of Republicans in the House, almost none of whom need to worry about appealing to Latinos to hold their seats. It seems likely to be the position that will appeal to the majority of Republican primary voters.

But it is a position that, according to Barreto and Segura, will make it difficult if not impossible for Republicans to improve on Romney’s showing among Latino voters in 2012. With Latinos and other nonwhites comprising a growing share of the American electorate, GOP candidates will need to win an increasingly large share of the vote among non-Hispanic whites to remain competitive in presidential elections—a very challenging assignment. All of this fits Schaller’s analysis of the growing domination of the national Republican Party by its increasingly conservative congressional wing.


The Outlook for 2016 and Beyond

The political trends described by Schaller and the demographic trends described by Barreto and Segura leave us with a puzzle. How have Republicans managed to hold on to control of Congress, and especially the House, for so long if their focus on appealing to conservative whites in the South and elsewhere has produced a negative reaction among the growing number of nonwhites and among moderate-to-liberal whites outside the South? In fact, not only have Republicans held on to Congress; in 2014 they also elected the largest number of Republicans to the House since the late 1920s, while also gaining nine seats in the Senate.

In The Stronghold, Schaller provides a few clues as to how Republicans have done so well in congressional and especially House elections despite their weak performance in presidential elections. Republicans, Schaller argues, have recently pursued a strategy of retrenchment rather than one of recovery. Retrenchment, according to Schaller, involves finding ways to maximize the return that GOP candidates receive from their current base of support in the electorate rather than trying to expand that base of support.

Perhaps the most effective way that Republicans have carried out this strategy has been through control of redistricting after the 2010 Census. Because the 2010 midterm elections gave Republicans complete control of state governments in large swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida, Republican legislatures were able to draw House and state legislative districts that packed Democratic voters into as few districts as possible—a strategy sometimes aided by African-American and Latino Democratic incumbents who received safe districts in return for their support of GOP redistricting plans. As a result, in 2012, Republicans were able to minimize their losses in the House of Representatives. Even though Democratic House candidates across the nation received more than 1.5 million more votes than Republican House candidates, the GOP suffered a net loss of only eight seats in the House and easily maintained its control of the chamber.

Gerrymandering, however, is not a complete explanation for Republicans’ success in the House, and it clearly cannot explain their success in the 2014 Senate elections. In House elections, the concentration of Democratic voters in densely populated urban areas results in large numbers of wasted votes in districts that Democrats win by huge landslides. This pattern existed even before the post-2010 round of redistricting. In the 2000 election, for example, even though Al Gore narrowly won the national popular vote, George W. Bush carried 228 House districts to only 207 for Gore.

GOP gerrymandering has reinforced the Republican advantage in House elections. In 2012, Obama won the national popular vote by almost four percentage points but carried only 208 House districts to Mitt Romney’s 227. An additional factor has made this advantage more significant than in the past—the increasing partisanship of the American electorate. Compared with elections from the 1960s through the 1980s, there is now a much stronger relationship between the presidential vote and the House vote as well as between the presidential vote and the Senate vote. There is greater party loyalty in voting and less ticket splitting than at any time since the 1950s.

(AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rich Addicks)

Ronald Reagan made the Republican Party more conservative and more Southern; Newt Gingrich (still in the background at this 1984 rally) took it from there.

Consequently, congressional candidates find it more difficult to win and hold seats in states or districts that normally favor the opposing party’s presidential candidate. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, has shown that the personal advantage of incumbency has been shrinking for some time now and, as he points out, this is bad news for Democrats in House elections because a majority of House districts lean toward the GOP. With Republicans now holding 247 seats, Democrats will need to gain at least 30 seats in 2016 to regain control of the House. That would require a major Democratic wave in 2016, one even larger than the wave that accompanied Obama’s election in 2008.

In Senate elections, Republicans benefit from the equal representation of states in the upper chamber. Even though the 20 least populous states have a smaller combined population than California, those 20 states elect 40 U.S. senators to California’s two. And the extreme small-state bias in Senate representation has important partisan consequences. Eleven of the 20 least populous states lean strongly toward the Republican Party, while only five lean strongly toward the Democratic Party.

Obama, however, did carry 28 states in 2008 and 26 in 2012, so the small-state bias in Senate representation does not guarantee Republicans a decisive advantage. And with the exception of 2014, Democrats have generally done better in recent elections for the Senate than for the House. In any given election, the particular set of states with Senate contests may determine which party has an edge. The states with Senate contests in 2014 were a particularly GOP-friendly group. In 2016, however, the states with Senate contests are friendlier to Democrats; Republicans will be defending seats they won in 2010. As a result, Democrats should have an opportunity to pick up the seats they will need to take back control of the Senate.

Democrats should also enjoy greater success in the 2016 congressional elections than in 2014 because voter turnout will be much higher in a presidential year. Lower turnout in midterms especially affects the groups that Democrats now rely on—younger voters, racial and ethnic minorities, and unmarried women. Compared to 2014, the 2016 electorate will be younger, less white, and almost certainly more Democratic. In fact, based on the evidence presented by Barreto and Segura, the 2016 electorate will probably have a smaller proportion of non-Hispanic whites and a larger proportion of Latinos and other nonwhites than the 2012 electorate. Even without Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, demographic trends almost guarantee that the nonwhite share of the electorate will continue to grow over the next several election cycles at about the same rate that it has been growing since the early 1990s. A reasonable guess would be that nonwhites will make up about 30 percent of the electorate, with Latinos amounting to around 11 percent.

Despite these trends, Republicans may still take back the White House in 2016. In presidential politics, demography is not destiny—the outcome of the next presidential election will depend on a variety of factors besides the racial and ethnic composition of the electorate, including the state of the American economy and voters’ evaluations of Obama’s job performance in 2016. Growing dependence of Democrats on the votes of African Americans, Latinos, and other nonwhites could also lead to further erosion of Democratic support among white working-class voters. Moreover, it is always difficult for a party to hold the White House for more than two consecutive elections. That has only happened once in the past 60 years, when George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1988, although Al Gore likely would have repeated the feat in 2000 if not for the problems with vote counting in Florida.

Even at this early stage, what we can predict with a high degree of confidence is that individual voting patterns in 2016 will closely resemble those in 2012; the electoral map in 2016 will closely resemble the electoral map in 2012; and party loyalty and straight-ticket voting will be the rule in 2016 just as in 2012. With the country closely divided between supporters of the two parties, the outcome in 2016 is likely to be very close unless one party or the other chooses a candidate so extreme as to alienate large numbers of moderate partisans and independents. Right now, that risk appears to be greater on the Republican than on the Democratic side because of the apparently wide-open nature of the GOP contest and the tendency of Republican primaries to magnify Tea Party influence.

If the 2016 election is to produce a break in the recent pattern of Democratic domination of presidential elections and Republican domination of congressional and especially House elections, it could well be through the election of a Republican president along with a GOP House and perhaps a GOP Senate, thereby restoring one-party control of American government but definitely not in the form desired by progressives. Such a result is far from certain. Should it come to pass, however, Democrats will be able to take some consolation from the fact that having a Republican in the White House is the most likely scenario that could eventually restore Democratic control of Congress.

While Schaller sees Republican control of Congress contributing to Democratic control of the White House, it is also likely that Democratic control of the White House in recent years has contributed to Republican control of Congress. There is considerable evidence of a presidential penalty in American politics: The party that controls the presidency almost inevitably sees its power erode in Congress, especially in the House of Representatives. Since 1992, Democrats have won a majority of seats in both chambers in three of five elections under Republican presidents but in none of the seven elections under Democratic presidents. Democrats have won an average of 231 House seats and 52 Senate seats in elections under Republican presidents compared with only 202 House seats and 49 Senate seats in elections under Democratic presidents.

It is not entirely clear why the party controlling the presidency generally sees its power diminish in Congress, although the prevalence of negative voting in midterm elections is part of the explanation. But whatever the cause of this phenomenon, the implication is that as long as the overall balance of support between the two parties in the electorate remains very close, periods of one-party control of government are likely to be brief. Regardless of which party captures the White House in 2016, divided government is likely to prevail for most of the foreseeable future. And given the deep ideological divide that exists between Democrats and Republicans, we can probably expect to see a continuation of the politics of confrontation and gridlock in Washington for a long time to come.