There are, in theory, two kinds of political realignments. The first occurs when major groups within the electorate alter some of their political sensibilities or discover that the political party that expresses their sensibilities isn't the one they've been voting for but another party altogether. The second occurs when a group that hasn't really been in the electorate at all enters it or at least greatly increases its numbers.
In practice, however, all realignments include elements of both types. From 1980 through 2004, the Republicans did bring more religious fundamentalists into the political process and the Republican column, at the same time as they shifted the voting patterns of millions of Southern whites. From 1928 through 1936, the Democrats, under the leadership first of Al Smith and then Franklin Roosevelt, mobilized millions of second-wave immigrant voters -- first in the cities and then, in 1936, through the efforts of the fledgling CIO unions, in the mine and mill towns of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the rest of the industrial Midwest. Roosevelt also intensified the Democratic allegiances of Appalachian whites and moved many Northern blacks from Republican to Democratic ranks (though that journey wasn't really completed until Lyndon Johnson's presidency).
Though a number of academics flashing their regression analyses dispute that last week's election signaled a political realignment, I believe they're wrong. Suburbanites and professionals continued their long march from the Republican to the Democratic Party, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira have both documented and predicted in the pages of this magazine. The current generation of young people is a more liberal cohort than its predecessor.
To be sure, we don't know whether the increased youth and African American turnout in this election is a short-lived phenomenon or a more durable pillar on which Democrats can rely. But there are two constituencies whose numbers are shifting that were key to the Democrats' victories last week and whose significance neither politicians nor regressive analysts can afford to dismiss. I refer to Latinos and labor.
In Latinos, we have the third great wave of immigrants. Like the second wave, the immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it has taken decades for Latinos to see their numbers swell to the point where they swing an election. California was the first place where those numbers were decisive. By the late 1990s, the onetime home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had gone definitively blue as a result of the Latinoization of the population and the electorate. And last week, we saw the same process at work in the Mountain West, where the Latino share of the electorate and the level of Latino support for Democrats both increased so markedly that they enabled Barack Obama to carry Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, and the Democrats to pick up four House seats and two Senate seats in those states as well. In Florida, where younger Cuban-Americans are more liberal than their elders and where Latino immigrants from other countries now outnumber Cubans, the Latino vote went Democratic for the first time since Florida had exit polls. Need I mention that Obama won Florida, too?
As in California, the issues that mobilized Latinos into the Democratic column (aside from the spectacular grass-roots organizing of the Obama campaign) were immigration and economics. On these issues, the differences between the two parties aren't likely to wane -- and the Latino affinity for Democrats isn't likely to wane, either.
When we talk labor and realignment, we are talking about the prospect of an already key Democratic constituency growing larger if new legislation enabling workers to join unions becomes law in the next Congress. Certainly, unions delivered last week in the states where they had numbers. In the Edison-Mitofsky national exit poll, union members backed Obama at a significantly higher rate than did nonmembers (60 percent to 52 percent). Unions also did a good job turning out their members in battleground states: In Ohio and Pennsylvania, union household voters constituted 28 percent and 27 percent of those states' electorates, respectively.
The numbers we don't have yet will tell a more interesting tale -- in particular, the exit poll's numbers on the difference between white union members and white nonmembers, where the gap surely exceeds that of the overall totals. In the AFL-CIO's polling of its own members, conducted (by Peter Hart's firm) on election night, the results showed a higher level of support for Obama (67 percent) than the network polls did. In polling its white members, it found 62 percent support for the Democratic candidate.
Whatever the precise numbers, it's clear that union members -- particularly white union members -- do vote considerably more Democratic than their nonunion counterparts. As Democrats ponder when to bring up the Employee Free Choice Act, which would enable workers to join unions again without the risk of management harassment or even firing, they should think of it as a matter of basic rights, or as a way to raise long-stagnating median incomes. But if neither of those does the trick, they should remember that increasing the numbers of union members in the electorate, like increasing the numbers of Latinos, means more votes for Democrats.