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University of Virginia Center for Politics to Host 16th Annual American Democracy Conference

U.Va. Center for Politics November 20th, 2014

Today, Nov. 20, the University of Virginia Center for Politics will host the 16th annual American Democracy Conference. The conference, which will be held at Alumni Hall on the Grounds of the University of Virginia, will feature panels of leading journalists and political experts focused on the results of the recent midterm elections and the upcoming presidential race.

The event, which will begin at 10:30 a.m., is free and open to the public with advance registration, and the press is invited to attend. For more information or to register, please visit

The conference will be livestreamed online at the following link:

The panels are:

10:30 a.m. to noon: Panel I: The 2014 midterm

Moderator: Larry J. Sabato, director of the U.Va. Center for Politics


12:45 p.m. to 2:15 p.m.: Panel II: What to expect in 2016

Moderator: Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball


The Underrated Eisenhower Coalition

Sean Trende, Senior Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball November 20th, 2014

Every political science undergraduate learns the “canonical” list of realigning elections: 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1968. These elections, so the narrative goes, bring about sharp, enduring changes to the American political system, forcing one party into the background and allowing another party to come to the forefront.

I’ve long been skeptical of the utility of the concept of realignments. But oddly enough, if we look closely at the voting habits of various political grouping, we do find one enduring, long-lasting example of what we might call a realignment. It isn’t, however, on any of the canonical lists.

I’m speaking of the Eisenhower coalition. Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of those executives whose terms in office have enjoyed substantial and steady upward revisions by students of presidential administrations. While Ike was initially viewed skeptically by scholars — historian Arthur Schlesinger rated him 22nd of 31 in 1962 — today he routinely finds himself placed in the top 10. His moderate approach to domestic policy, his stewardship of the country through the early days of the civil rights revolution, and his adept handling of the emerging Cold War all mark his presidency as important, and at the very least, “near-great.”

So it is only fitting that we should begin to recognize that he also brought about a lasting change in the political alignments of the country. The New Deal coalition did not fail in 1968, as many imagine, but rather fell apart, at least at the presidential level, in 1952.

Eisenhower grafted three significant parts to the traditional Republican coalition of northern “Yankee” Republicans, businessmen, and small towns in the Midwest. The first was one of the unlikeliest candidates for Republican voting in the country as of 1952: The South. While the dominant narrative continues to insist that the South began to realign toward the Republicans in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in fact, Southern loyalties had begun to weaken during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

Put simply, rich Southerners began to vote like their Northern counterparts during the New Deal. As the country emerged out of the depression, there were a lot more rich Southerners. This, in turn, forever altered the landscape of American politics.

Over the course of the Roosevelt presidency, the South voted increasingly Republican every year. In 1932, the region had given FDR 81% of the vote. By 1944, that share had declined to merely human levels of 72%, even though FDR was still winning handily nationwide. To put this in perspective, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1904 lost by double digits nationally, yet still managed to win 66% of the Southern vote.

This wasn’t a generalized improvement for Republicans, however. It was focused in the newly emerging cities, where the wealth was concentrated and where immigrants from the North were gradually transforming the demographics of the South. The rural areas, by contrast, remained stubbornly Democratic at the presidential level until the 1970s.

This came to a head in 1952. Ike lost the South by only three points, winning Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas. Four years later, Ike won a plurality of the popular vote in the South, becoming the first Republican since Reconstruction to do so. He added Louisiana to the list of states won in the South, breaking through in the Deep South for the first time in nearly a century.

Nor could his win be attributed solely to his celebrity status. His vice president, Richard Nixon, came close to carrying the South in 1960, despite the presence of the most prominent Southern politician in the country on the Democratic ticket (Lyndon Johnson).

Eisenhower also grafted the newly emerging suburbs onto the extant Republican base. Suburbs had been slowly emerging in the 1910s and 1920s, but with the strength of the postwar economy and the emergence of a mass middle class, they began to dominate the once rural borderlands of central cities.

They also became staunchly Republican. In the 1920s, the collar counties of Philadelphia and suburban New York City provided about 10% of the Republican vote in their respective states. By the 1950s, those areas were providing nearly half of the Republican vote.

Eisenhower did one other key thing: He won over the white working class. White ethnics had actually been a modestly Republican constituency after the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson’s politically disastrous peace accords at the end of World War I. But Al Smith’s candidacy and the New Deal had swung them strongly toward the Democrats.

Ike brought them back. Truth be told, the liberalism of the New Deal had been increasingly creating a rift with white ethnics who were in many ways quite conservative (FDR’s famous purge of 1938 included one conservative Northern Democrat). Italians dropped out of the New Deal coalition in 1940 after FDR’s famous speech at the University of Virginia asserting that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had stabbed France in the back.

Eisenhower took advantage of this weakness by exploiting several issues, in particular the newly emergent issue of anti-communism, to make substantial inroads with this group. Ike won the Catholic vote outright in 1956, becoming probably the first Republican to do so since Warren Harding in 1920 (Calvin Coolidge probably would have done so if not for the three-way race in 1924). In truth, Reagan Democrats had previously been Nixon Democrats, and they had been Eisenhower Democrats beforehand.

This four-legged stool — the old Republican base, Southerners, suburbanites, and the white working class — provided the foundation for the Republican majorities that appeared from 1952 to 1988. There are substantial contiguities at the subnational level between Eisenhower’s wins and Reagan’s.

In 1952, some 1,700 counties voted more Republican than the country as a whole (there are about 3,000 total). Of those 1,700, 70% voted more Republican than the country as a whole in the succeeding nine elections, and 80% at least leaned Republican in 1956, 1960, 1968, 1980, and 1984. This is a tremendous amount of consistency over an extended period of time.

This isn’t to say that these coalitions were identical — Reagan ran better in the South and Eisenhower performed better in the North. But there is an overwhelming similarity among these elections.

The importance of the Eisenhower coalition is all the more apparent when one looks closely at the three Democratic majorities that emerged from 1952 to 1988. Far from being throwbacks to the New Deal era, these were either unique “deviating” elections, or antecedents of the Clinton coalition that would emerge in 1992.

For example, the 1960 election was unlike anything the country had seen, or has seen since. The country split along religious lines, with John F. Kennedy winning overwhelmingly among Catholics and Nixon running strong among Protestants. The race was exceedingly close, not only nationally, but at the state level as well, where 34 states were decided by 10 points or less.

In 1964, LBJ did not put the New Deal coalition back together again. He performed relatively poorly in the South and Mountain West, which together constituted the backbone of the New Deal coalition. LBJ won by breaking off suburbanites from the Republican coalition, and adding liberal northerners who were horrified by Barry Goldwater’s candidacy. In many ways, this resembled the Democrats’ coalition today.

Finally, Jimmy Carter’s win in 1976 reflected simply his unique strength for a Democrat in the South. When he proved unable to replicate that strength in 1980, he was unable to secure a second term.

Interestingly, under this narrative, Ronald Reagan does not represent the birth of a substantial Republican majority, but rather the beginning of its decline. By pulling the party rightward, the weakening of northern attachments to the party, which began with the Goldwater candidacy, accelerated. You can see this in the returns from 1988, when his vice president had difficulty replicating Reagan’s margins in northern suburbs, and then in the 1992 elections, when Bill Clinton succeeded in wresting those suburbs from the Republican coalition.

So should we then say that this is an example of a realignment in the classic sense? Not at all. Instead, this provides a unique example of how the short-term contingencies that dominate presidential elections can run into the long term. First, Republicans found themselves fortunate beneficiaries of the post-War prosperity. Because recessions became rare and relatively mild, they were able to dominate elections through a fair run of good luck.

More importantly, the lengthy duration of the Cold War played into Republican hands. Democrats, for whatever reason, were never quite able to put together a coherent narrative on their position on the Cold War. Republicans, on the other hand, adopted a clear position of staunch anti-communism, and found that the issue managed to paper over other disagreements within the party. Suburbanites, southerners, and white working class voters all agreed that the Soviet Union represented a clear threat, and were willing to overlook disagreements on other policies in an attempt to win the Cold War. Once that threat receded, the glue that held the Republican coalition together disappeared, and the Eisenhower coalition fell apart.

When we look back over 20th century politics, the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower increasingly appears to be an important one, both for its shaping of domestic and foreign policy. But we should also realize that its effects extend beyond that. Eisenhower made real, lasting contributions to the makeup of the Republican and Democratic coalitions, and bequeathed to the country one of the most stable presidential alignments in history.

Sean Trende is the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics and a senior columnist for the Crystal Ball. He is the author of The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs and Who Will Take It, and co-author of the Almanac of American Politics 2014. Follow Sean on Twitter @SeanTrende.

What Goes Around Comes Around?

A little Electoral College history in Michigan

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball November 20th, 2014

Since President Obama’s reelection victory in 2012, a number of Republican state legislators around the country have proposed altering the electoral vote allocation processes in their respective states. Legislative activity on this front has been most common in competitive states that Obama won but where Republicans control most or all of state government, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Despite some claims to the contrary, a key motivation has surely been to help Republicans win electoral votes in states that have been giving 100% of their share to Democrats.

The latest entry to the Electoral College change-a-thon is Michigan, where state Rep. Pete Lund (R) has introduced House Bill 5974 to alter the state’s allocation process. A Republican presidential nominee last won the Wolverine State in 1988, meaning Democrats have claimed all of its electoral votes in six straight presidential elections. Another state where this is the case is Pennsylvania, and early in 2013 the Crystal Ball performed an in-depth analysis of a proportional plan then under consideration in the Keystone State. We would do the same for Michigan, but Crystal Ball friend Josh Putnam of Appalachian State University and the invaluable Frontloading HQ blog beat us to the punch.

Still, it’s important to note that Michigan has prior history with partisan gamesmanship over the state’s electoral votes. In fact, Democrats were once the partisans toying with the Wolverine State’s allocation rules, and they actually succeeded in changing the process. So if Michigan ends up altering its system (unlikely), it might just be a case of “what goes around comes around.”

The late 19th century was a time of great partisanship and political polarization, somewhat similar to today. It was a period that saw large swings toward one major party or the other, also something we’ve seen in recent times. In the 1888 presidential election, Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland. But Harrison and Republicans’ joys were short-lived. Economic struggles, debate over a protectionist tariff, wasteful spending (Democrats decried the “Billion Dollar Congress”), and general Republican overreach (the party controlled the White House, Senate, and House) proceeded to lead to a massive Democratic wave in 1890 that saw Republicans lose more than 80 seats in the House. The wave also spilled onto other shores, aiding Democrats in state and legislative races around the country, including in Michigan.

Edwin Winans, the newly-elected Democratic governor, and the new Democratic-controlled legislature in the Wolverine State were clearly tired of Republicans dominating the state in presidential elections. While Democrats have won the state six straight times in recent presidential elections, Republicans had an incredible run in Michigan. Before 1932 and the New Deal, the GOP won at least a plurality in every presidential election in Michigan from 1856 to 1928, save the three-way 1912 contest (when Republican-turned-Progressive Theodore Roosevelt won the state). So Democrats set to the task of changing the rules of the game.

The Democrats’ “Plan to Steal Presidential Electors” (to quote a column title in the Republican-supporting Chicago Daily Tribune from Jan. 30, 1891) was introduced early on in the 1891 legislative session. The proposal would change Michigan from a winner-take-all state in the Electoral College to one based on the result in each of its 12 congressional districts, which, conveniently for Democrats, were redrawn at this time as well. Thus, the majority party could gerrymander the districts to maximize not only its membership in the House but also its potential take in the Electoral College.

The plan also called for Michigan’s two other electoral votes, representing its senators, to be decided in two larger east and west districts, essentially leaving the state with 14 districts deciding the state’s 14 electoral votes. Based on the 1884 and 1888 presidential elections, this meant Democrats might have a shot at winning a majority of the state’s electoral votes even though the party seemed likely to lose the plurality once again. (This is different from the two states that currently apportion electoral votes by congressional district, Maine and Nebraska. In those states, the overall statewide winner gets the state’s two electoral votes that account for the state’s two senators, and then the other electoral votes are given to the winner of the state’s individual U.S. House districts.)

Amid controversy, the bill became law in the summer of 1891.

Naturally, Republicans weren’t going to take this lying down. They challenged the district law in the court system, leading to the U.S. Supreme Court’s eventual decision in McPherson v. Blacker. Democrats prevailed as the court’s ruling upheld the Michigan legislature’s right to alter its electoral vote allocation method.

That decision is one reason why states can continue pondering such changes today.

However, after all the hubbub, Michigan’s district law didn’t really impact the outcome of the 1892 presidential election. Although the final popular vote margin was only three percentage points (46%-43%), Cleveland bested Harrison in a rematch and won the Electoral College quite convincingly, 277 to 145 (Populist James Weaver won 22 electoral votes).

Perhaps as a warning to today’s electoral vote tinkerers, things didn’t work out for Michigan Democrats the way they planned. Reports after the district law’s passage indicated Democrats might be able to win eight or nine of Michigan’s 14 electoral votes, but in the end Democrats only won five. They also lost the governorship: Gov. Winans stepped aside at the Michigan Democratic convention, and Republican John Rich narrowly defeated Democrat Allen Morse in November (at the time, Michigan only had two-year gubernatorial terms). Despite the Democratic gerrymander, Republicans won seven of the state’s 12 congressional races (the GOP may have won an eighth, but the Democrat was seated in the next Congress and withstood a challenge to the result). Lastly, Republicans also recaptured both chambers in the state legislature. Back in full control of state government, the GOP immediately repealed the district electoral vote system, returning to a winner-take-all method before the 1896 election.

Although this is fun history, electoral vote shenanigans are a dangerous game. Any alterations to Electoral College rules by Republican-led states that lean Democratic in presidential years may well lead to eventual retaliation by Democratic-led states (now or in the future) in states that tend to vote Republican at the presidential level. Barring an extremely close election (like 2000), any president who lacks a popular vote plurality will likely be hobbled from Day One. Moreover, to actually change the rules would suggest that the party’s members really think they can only win the White House by rigging the game.

Just because states can change the way they allocate electoral votes doesn’t mean they should. Maine and Nebraska, the two small states that dole out their electoral votes differently, would do the nation a great service by getting in line with the other states and going to winner-take-all systems.