Realigning Elections in American History

Is the 2016 Election of Donald Trump a Realigning Election?

Donald Trump - President of the United States
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Since the stunning victory by Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 United States presidential election, the discourse around words and phrases such as “political realignment” and “critical elections” have become more commonplace not only among political analysts but also in mainstream media.

Political Realignments

A political realignment occurs when a particular group or class of voters changes or in other words realigns with a political party or candidate who they vote for in a particular election—known as a "critical election" or this realignment may be spread out over a number of elections. On the other hand, “dealignment” occurs when a voter becomes disenfranchised with his or her current political party and either chooses not to vote or becomes an independent.

These political realignments take place in elections involving the U.S. presidency and the U.S. Congress and are signified by power changes of the Republican and Democratic parties that constitute ideological changes in both issues and party leaders. Other important factors are legislative changes that affect campaign financing rules and voter eligibility. Central to realignment is that there is a change in voters' behavior and priorities.

V. O. Key, Jr. and Realigning Elections

American political scientist V.O. Key, Jr. is most well-known for his contributions to behavioral political science, with his major impact being on election studies. In his 1955 article "A Theory of Critical Elections," Key explained how the Republican Party became dominant between 1860 and 1932; and then how this dominance shifted to the Democratic Party after 1932 by using empirical evidence to identify a number of election which Key termed as “critical,” or “realigning” which resulted in American voters changing their political party affiliations.

While Key specifically starts with 1860 which was the year that Abraham Lincoln was elected, other scholars and political scientists have identified and/or recognized that there have been systematic patterns or cycles which have regularly taken place in the U.S. national elections. While these scholars are not in agreement as to the duration of these patterns: periods that range from every 30 to 36 years as opposed to 50 to 60 years; it does appear that the patterns have some relationship with generational change.

Election of 1800

The earliest election which scholars have identified as realigning was in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent John Adams. This election transferred power from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party to the Democratic-Republican Party which was led by Jefferson. Although some argue that this was the birth of the Democratic Party, in reality, the party was established in 1828 with the election of Andrew Jackson. Jackson defeated the incumbent, John Quincy Adams and resulted in the Southern States taking power from the original New England colonies.

Election of 1860

As stated above, Key explained how the Republican Party became dominant starting in 1860 with the election of Lincoln. Although Lincoln was a member of the Whig Party during his early political career, as president he led the U.S. to abolish the system of enslavement as a member of the Republic Party. In addition, Lincoln and the Republic Party brought nationalism to the United States on the eve of what would become the American Civil War.

Election of 1896

The overbuilding of railroads caused several of them, including the Reading Railroad, to go into receivership which caused hundreds of banks to fail; resulting in what was the first U.S. economic depression and is known as the Panic of 1893. This depression caused soup lines and public ire towards the present administration and made the Populist Party the favorite to take power in the 1896 Presidential election.

In the 1896 Presidential election, William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan and while this election was not a true realignment or did it even meet the definition of a critical election; it did set the stage for how candidates would campaign for office in subsequent years.

Bryan had been nominated by both the Populist and Democratic parties. He was opposed by the Republican McKinley who was backed by a very wealthy individual who used that wealth to conduct a campaign that was intended to make the populace fearful of what would happen if Bryan won. On the other hand, Bryan used the railroad to make a whistle-stop tour giving twenty to thirty speeches daily. These campaign methods have evolved into the modern day.

Election of 1932

The 1932 election is widely considered as the most well-known realignment election in U.S. history. The country was in the middle of the Great Depression as a result of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Democratic candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal policies overwhelmingly defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover by a margin of 472 to 59 Electoral Vote. This critical election was the underpinnings of a massive overhaul of American politics. In addition, it changed the face of the Democratic Party. 

Election of 1980

The next critical election occurred in 1980 when Republican challenger Ronald Reagan defeated the Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter by the tremendous margin of 489 to 49 Electoral Votes. At the time, approximately 60 American’s had been held hostage since November 4, 1979, after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran had been overrun by Iranian students. The Reagan election also marked a realignment of the Republican Party to being more conservative than ever before and also brought about Reaganomics which was designed to fix severe economic issues that confronted the country. In 1980, the Republicans also took control of the Senate, which marked the first time since 1954 that they had control of either house of Congress. (It would not be until 1994 before the Republican Party would have control of both the Senate and the House simultaneously.)

Election of 2016 and Beyond

One key to the Trump victory was that he won the popular vote in three of the so-called “Blue Wall” States: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. "Blue Wall" States are those who have solidly supported the Democratic Party over the past 10 or so presidential elections. In the 10 presidential elections prior to 2016, Wisconsin had only voted Republican on two occasions—1980 and 1984; Michigan voters had voted Democrat in six straight Presidential elections prior to 2016; and as well, in the 10 presidential elections prior to 2016, Pennsylvania had only voted Republican on three occasions—1980, 1984 and 1988. In all three states, Trump won by a narrow margin of votes — he lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million actual votes, but his narrow victories in a handful of states won him enough electoral votes to take office.

In hindsight, the 2016 election certainly seems like it fits many of the criteria of a realignment. With the election of Trump, much of the Republican Party moved further and further to the right, embracing rhetoric like his rather than the "compassionate conservative" doctrine of the Bush era. Under the four years of the Trump administration, hate crimes and murders rose to new highs, according to the FBI, while Pew Research Center reported an increase in the wealth gap and the administration pursued controversial, right-leaning policies aimed at decreasing access for abortion care, decreasing discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ individuals, decreasing acceptance of immigrants and asylum-seekers, decreasing Title IX protections, and pulling out of climate change agreements. Trump's three nominees to the Supreme Court during his tenure appeared to be aimed at continuing these fights beyond his administration.

The realignment of the Republican Party has also seen a rise in activity from fringe groups that align themselves with right-wing policies and politicians, including Trump himself. Hate groups, particularly white supremacist groups, grew 55% from 2017 to 2019, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, while conspiracy theories have left the confines of internet message boards and led to real-life crimes and attempted crimes.

Although the left wing and Democratic Party have also seen something of a realignment, with more and more voters and politicians open to further left policies than before, the 2020 election suggests that there has been less of a full-scale realignment in that party than in their counterparts across the aisle. While individual politicians called for policies such as college loan forgiveness, Medicare for All, police defunding, and a Green New Deal to address climate change, the party's presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is considerably more centrist.

Does the victory of Biden over Trump in 2020 represent another realignment in American politics, back towards "normal" or what passed for normal in prior years? Maybe, maybe not. It's impossible to know whether the realignments and shifts of the Trump era will linger beyond his presidency, and in all likelihood, it will be several years before anyone can really say.

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Kelly, Martin. "Realigning Elections in American History." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, February 16). Realigning Elections in American History. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Realigning Elections in American History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).