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 now become fertile ground for Republicans, especially in national elections (Black and Black 1992, 3-76; Lublin 2004, 33-65). The class cleavages that were so clear in the 1930s and 1940s have diminished over time, although they have not disappeared (Abramson, Aldrich, and Rhode 2003, 113-115; Stonecash 2000, 141-144>). Union membership, a great source of Democratic strength in earlier years, has declined as a proportion of the labor force and has become somewhat less reliably Democratic in its voting (Abramson, Aldrich, and Rhode 2003, 111-112).

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 and to cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, and they now are one of the most loyal components of the Democratic coalition of voters (Abramson, Aldrich, and Rhode 2003, 107-108). Hispanics have emerged as a significant minority group, and they generally 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; Mueller 1988).

A new religious split has been developing, with Republicans appealing more to a "New Christian Right," which emphasizes traditional moral values (Wald 1987, 182-212). 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, who 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. Somewhat 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. Thus, 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 have made clear gains in party loyalty during the 1980s and 1990s. While Democrats remain in the lead when it comes to party identification, Republicans have greatly narrowed the margin. Moreover, Republican identifiers turn out at a higher rate than do Democratic identifiers. Among those who vote, Republicans and Democrats are now about at parity.

Much of the analysis of partisan change and realignment has focused on changes 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 Democrats more clearly liberal now than was the case two or three decades ago. The result is greater party polarization along ideological lines.