The term “realignment” gets thrown around casually, sometimes suggesting nothing more than “something big is happening.” But the term has a more precise meaning—indeed, it must have a precise meaning in order for it to mean anything. A realignment is predicated on three things. First, there has to be a dramatic and permanent shift in the party coalitions. Second, the shift in coalitions needs to usher in an extended period of party control. Third, the shift in control needs to bring about a notable shift in policy. One can see how the “New Deal coalition” approximates this definition, since it ushered in decades of one-party dominance in Congress, particularly in the House, and brought about not only the New Deal but arguably the Great Society.
No such thing has happened since Obama was elected in 2008. It is true that the demography of the country is changing slowly, and groups that have tended to vote Democratic are becoming more numerous. So the Democratic party coalition has the potential for continuing growth. Will that growth translate into enduring power and policy change? It certainly didn’t in 2010. Yes, the 2010 electorate was not the 2012 electorate. But that’s the point: a realignment doesn’t take midterm elections off.
So what about 2012? What is most remarkable about 2012 is not its radical change but instead enduring stability—very modest shifts in state outcomes relative to 2008, relative even to 2000. Very modest shifts in House and Senate seat shares. In terms of policymaking, the 2012 election simply returned the status quo: divided government. This doesn’t mean that policy won’t get made, and maybe Congress will pass policies that Democrats have favored more than Republicans, such as a tax increase for the wealthy or comprehensive immigration reform. But nothing about the current configuration of Congress foreshadows a dramatic shift in policy.Recent posts have documented the stability he discusses. Yes, Romney won the white vote while Obama won the rest. But except for 1964, the same pattern has held in every election in the past sixty years. There has been some fluctuation among religious groups, but the shifts between 2008 and 2012 were all in single digits. And far from being a "shellacking" or "thrashing," the president's electoral college victory was actually below average for winning candidates. His party failed to make substantial gains in the House, and picked up seats in the Senate mainly because of individual candidates and political conditions in the states. He did not have Senate coattails: in most Senate key races, the Democratic winners ran ahead of him.