Paper: 2008 was not a Realignment Election

So now we’ve seen the 2008 Presidential election, and we’ve done some reading on the nature of realignment elections. My Presidential Primaries, Nominations, & Elections professor asked us to write a paper on whether this year’s Presidential election should be considered a realignment election.


The 2008 election produced several significant results, including a large margin of victory for the winning Presidential candidate. This and other changes have led some observers to herald this election as the dawn of a new age in American politics; they claim that we are witnessing a realigning election. There are obvious arguments in favor of this observation, but on balance we will find they are wrong.

Theoretical Examination

First, we shall examine the election from a theoretical perspective. David Mayhew summarizes many factors in his book Electoral Realignments defining realigning elections, which we may check for consistency with this year’s results.

First, Mayhew says that voter turnout will be high in a realigning year. But that has not been the case this year. While voter turnout rates have gradually increased for the last several elections, 2008’s election saw roughly the same turnout as 2004’s election did.

Examining CNN’s 2004 and 2008 exit polls, one finds little difference in voter identification metrics. Voters in 2008 focused more on the economy than they did in 2004, which traditionally leads to a Democratic victory; whereas in 2004 the largest single issue was morality and then terrorism (both Republican strongholds).

Mayhew also indicates that nominating conventions will be in turmoil during realignment years. Despite a longer-than-usual nominating process in the Democratic party, both major conventions were peaceful. Additionally, the drawn-out nomination process in the Democratic party was chiefly due to the lack of a clear successor after 8 years of Republican-dominated government and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did not strongly differentiate themselves on any policy.

A third indicator of realignment elections is the presence of strong third parties. But the elections of 2004 and 2008 are characterized by the distinct lack of serious third-party contenders, after 3 elections in which a third party candidate either played the role of spoiler or took a significant portion of the popular vote.

The last two indicators of a realignment election are idea-based: that there is a new dominant ideological divide replacing the old main divide, and that political outsiders will lead the charge in polarizing the parties over this divide. There have been two new high-profile issues in the last 8 years: terrorism and gay marriage. Terrorism does not create strong ideological divides among the populace or the government, however. There are serious differences over the best policies to pursue, but the strong ideological divides have all been upon secondary issues, like whether the Iraq War was a helpful idea or well-planned. Issues of planning do not provoke realignments in the electorate.

Gay marriage has been seized upon by the Republican Party as a polarizing issue, but polling doesn’t bear out its strength as a realigning issue. The serious Democratic contenders for President all agreed that marriage should not be extended to gay couples, and most states have passed public initiatives banning gay marriage. A strong cross-cut is evident over this issue: blacks and Latinos are overwhelmingly in support of banning gay marriage; they are also overwhelmingly Democratic and the Democrats support gay rights more than Republicans do. However, since this election went strongly for the Democrats it clearly cannot be realigning on the basis of gay marriage.

James Sundquist has also charted how realigning elections are born in his 1983 book “The Dynamics of the Party System Revisited;” the first 4 steps are idea-based and do not apply to this election for reasons outlined in the previous two paragraphs.

In general, the Democratic victories in the 2006 midterm and 2008 presidential elections can be explained via shifting electoral focuses and events that benefited the Democrats, after a long period of issues that played to Republican strengths. The new issues of the past 6 years have largely followed the existing ideological divides, and any party defections can largely be explained by retrospective voters disagreeing with a failed process.