Recent Developments in the Party System

The breakup of the New Deal coalition resulted from several changes in the American electorate. Most significantly, the South — which had been a bastion of Democratic strength — has become fertile ground for Republicans, especially in national elections (Black and Black 2002, 2-39; Lublin 2004, 33-65). George W. Bush carried every Southern state in both 2000 and 2004, even though both were very close elections nationally. John McCain won 8 of the 11 Southern states in 2008, and Romney carried 9 in 2012. In U.S. House elections, Republicans have consistently won a majority of the Southern congressional districts since 1994. A majority of U.S. Senators from the South also have been from the GOP since 1994. These developments within the South, which began over four decades ago, represent the greatest change in American electoral alignments in the post-World War II era.

Outside the South, the New Deal coalition has been diluted by other changes. The class cleavages that were so clear in the 1930s and 1940s have diminished, although they have not disappeared (Stonecash 2000, 141-144). Higher-income voters are still more Republican than lower-income voters (Bartels 2008, 64-97). Union members, a source of Democratic strength in earlier years, have declined as a proportion of the labor force and have become less reliably Democratic in their voting (Abramson, Aldrich, and Rhode 2012, 132-134).

At the same time that some of the old partisan differences have diminished, new divisions have emerged. Beginning in the 1960s, Blacks began to vote in greater numbers, particularly in the South, and to cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates; they now are one of the most loyal components of the Democratic coalition of voters (Abramson, Aldrich, and Rhode 2012, 126-127). Hispanics have emerged as a significant minority group, and they have leaned in the Democratic direction, although not as strongly as Blacks. In the 1980s, a gender gap developed, with men more likely than women to vote Republican (Seltzer, Newman, and Leighton 1997, 31-46). Married people, regardless of gender, also have become more likely to vote Republican.

A new religious split has been developing, with Republicans appealing more to a "New Christian Right," which emphasizes traditional moral values. The older religious division between Protestants and non-Protestants (principally Catholics and Jews) was based not on theology but sociology. In the 1930s, Catholics and Jews were predominantly more recent and less assimilated immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. They found the Democratic Party more willing to champion their integration into American society. In the 1980s a more clearly religious dimension emerged. Fundamentalist Protestants became a more distinctly defined political group, with strong conservative leanings across a range of issues, especially moral ones. Related to this development, Republicans in recent years have appealed more to those who are more religious, even if they are mainline Protestants and Catholics. Current religious divisions involve both denomination and religiosity (Layman 2001, 168-294).

While there has been a great deal of change in recent decades, it has not added up to a critical realignment of the type that occurred in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the cumulative change over the past three decades has been substantial. Republicans made clear gains in party loyalty during the 1980s and 1990s. While Democrats remained in the lead on party identification, Republicans greatly narrowed the margin. Moreover, Republican identifiers generally turn out at a higher rate than do Democratic identifiers. The result was near parity among Democrats and Republican voters in 2004. However, the decline in Bush's approval rating during his second administration produced a shift in partisan attachments toward the Democrats after 2004. This trend was reversed during the Obama administration, but Democrats still enjoyed a modest advantage in party identification among voters.

More important than shifts in the relative strength of the parties are the changes in the base of support for each party. One way to analyze the base of support is to examine the support for each party among different social groups. This approach emphasizes the changing impact that such factors as race, region, religion, and social class have on voting behavior. There is another aspect to partisan change and realignment, one that focuses on the connection between partisanship and ideology or policy orientations. From this perspective, there has been significant realignment of the party system, especially in the past two decades. The Republican Party is more clearly conservative and the Democratic Party more clearly liberal now than was the case two or three decades ago. The result is greater party polarization along ideological lines (Abramson 2010; Stonecash, Brewer, and Mariani 2003).

References on Voting Behavior