Southern Politics

How is it possible that Democrats could win so many seats in 2006 and 2008, only to give almost all of them back in 2010?  It seems that we need to look at the last time such huge swings happened…all the way back to the 1880s and 1890s.  Amazingly enough, that time has more in common with politics today than just the electoral results!

Look at the 2006 election, where Democrats won a huge number of congressional seats.  They were able to have a decent year for pickups in 2008, augmenting their numbers in the House of Representatives and garnering a filibuster-proof U.S. Senate majority, which is an amazing development considering the Republican majority of 2005-06.  Then the Democrats lost 63 seats and several U.S. Senate seats in 2010.

Consider those last three elections, dubbed as huge “wave” elections, in comparison to 1996-2004 elections, where congressional turnover amounted to single digit changes each time.  Even the Reagan years reflected similarly small swings in Congress.

When analysts look at contemporary politics, they usually conclude that the parties are the most polarized… since the 1880s and 1890s.  Sure enough, that era was one of the biggest ever in terms of hyper-partisanship and party differences.  “If you look at the 1896 electoral map, it looks a lot like it does today, only the parties have been reversed,” Marc Hetherington at Vanderbilt University pointed out at the Southern Political Science Association conference.  Look at American Conservative Union voting scores.  I’ve posted articles in SPR showing the number of congressional moderates to be the smallest number since the ACU began collecting data, even before 2010 election results!

Today looks a lot more like the 1880s and 1890s than you might think.  You have all kinds of gaps in the country: North against the South, urban against rural, etc.  Check out the 1893 great recession….it looks as bad as the recession of 2008 (and in 1894, nearly twice as many Democrats lost seats as in 2010).  The Democrats then were more like the TEA Party today, Hetherington notes, harkening to a “utopia of the past” with an emphasis on religion and farming.  And race still played a huge role, even years after the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.  So there’s lots to connect those days to today.

Now look at the elections of that time: it’s a huge pendulum effect.  It started in 1880, where Republican James Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee, Civil War hero Winfield S. Hancock.  But in 1884, Democrat Grover Cleveland won the open election against Republican James Blaine.  Four years later, Cleveland was out of a job, thanks to Republican Benjamin Harrison.  But in 1892, Cleveland made a historic comeback against Harrison.  In 1896, William McKinley returned Republicans to the White House, besting Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

Big swings were also present in the Congress back then.  Look at what happened in the 51st. Congress through the 55th Congress.  Democrats would win 70 seats, lose 113, then gain 60 from election to election.

So what’s happening in both eras?  You have 40%-45% of people who are strong partisans.  The remaining 10%-20% gap is a completely non-ideological group which votes completely on the way things are going at the present time.  That sounds like a small percentage of free agents, but it’s enough to see huge electoral swings.  So just as the door can swing one way in 2010, it could easily swing a different way in 2012, in 2014, and maybe 2016 unless there’s a change in this party polarization.

This article was written a few days before the shooting in Tucson.  Even though most analysts now conclude that the shooter has all the hallmarks of a societal outcast, the Tucson sheriff argued that the level of partisan rhetoric may have been a contributing factor.  While some dispute that the current political climate played a role, Sarah Palin’s removal of her map with the crosshairs over Rep Gabby Giffords’ district, the outcry over Palin’s “blood libel” response, and the generally warm reception that the nonpartisan speeches by President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner received may well herald a slightly less polarized political world.

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John A. Tures

John A. Tures

John A. Tures is an Associate Professor of Political Science at LaGrange College in Georgia.  He writes about international politics, elections, sports, and the War of 1812.