Two Parties, Many Paths

How America’s Political Parties Change (And How They Don’t), by Michael Barone, Encounter Books, 2019, 130 pages

Before American media began to worship at the feet of the statistics gurus (Nate Silver and others), Michael Barone was generally regarded as  the writer with the  greatest  insight into American politics, past and present. Barone’s  biennial “Almanac of American Politics”, a thick collection of essays and voting histories on the 50 states, and every Congressional district, provided the best short survey on how American politics was changing at the regional,  state and Congressional district level, with analyses of the current officeholders – Governors, Senators, Congressmen, and descriptions of the places they represented.  If you met Barone, as I have a few times, he could startle you by describing politics at a granular level – even down to towns or neighborhoods. 

But the failure of pretty much every public opinion poll or statistical forecast to accurately predict the  results of the 2016 Presidential election results has not diminished the enthusiasm for data analytics, now one of the hottest areas of study in colleges and universities. In Michael Barone’s latest book on America’s two major political parties , he addresses the  history of the two parties, the 2016 results, the forecasting failures and what may lay ahead for the two parties.

Barone argues that the two parties, both of which have been around for over 150 years, are resilient. At times, both a century ago, and also more recently, one or the other appeared to be on the ropes. After the 2016 elections, Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, and roughly two thirds of state legislative branches, and Governors chairs. Republican Donald Trump won his  Electoral College victory by capturing (very narrowly),  three states Republican had not won in elections since 1984 or 1988: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, part of the purported blue wall.

One of the authors of a 2002 book “The  Emerging Democratic Majority,” Ruy Texeira, was ready to throw in the towel and admit defeat. His analysis, a thoughtful consideration of the changing sizes of various groups in the American electorate-whites with college degrees, whites without college degrees, and minorities (African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, native Americans), suggested that the group where Republicans were strongest -- whites without college degrees, was shrinking over time, and the two other groups, which increasingly favored Democrats, were growing. The elections which followed publication of his book, suggested that the demographic shifts he expected had not been as rapid as he assumed (turnout percentage affects voting shares, and was always much higher for whites than for Hispanics or Asians), but even more, shifts from one election to another in the voting pattern  of a group, ensured there was no straight line or smooth path to the Democratic dominance he anticipated.  In short, the vote share of white voters did not drop as much as he expected, and the voting pattern of white voters, both college educated and non-college educated, was  erratic.  Trump’s breakthrough in the Midwestern states -- Ohio, and Iowa also switched to the Republicans, in addition to  Michigan and Wisconsin between 2012 and 2016 -- was  due to a significant increase in the Republican vote share in counties that were not part of metropolitan areas with 1 million or more people. In 2008, Obama won these Midwest counties which account for slightly over half the votes in the region,  by half a per cent. Romney won them by 6% in 2012. Trump won them by 20%.

Two years later, following the 2018 midterms, Republicans were nervous about their party’s future after Democrats won back control of the U.S. House, picking up 40 seats, many of them due to a desertion of college educated white voters in suburban areas, as well a lesser shift of votes among non-college educated women .

Barone argues that the recent volatility clouds a deeper pattern of rough parity between the parties, with each moving rapidly towards becoming a more partisan ideologically consistent party. This parity is not the norm over the history of the parties; Democrats dominated Congress for 40 years between 1954 and 1994, but one party or the other had periods of dominance at the Presidential level. Republicans won 5 of 6 elections between 1968 and 1988. Democrats won five straight from 1932 to 1948, and have won the popular vote 6 times in the last 7 Presidential elections from 1992 to 2016 (though twice the Republicans won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote). So, too, the parties have rarely been models of ideological consistency over time. For many decades there were significant numbers of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, the former mainly found in the Northeast , the latter in the Southern states.

Barone says the Democrats historically have had an advantage as a collection of people, many not thought of  by themselves or others, as typical Americans, but who together often form a majority. The Republicans , he argues, have always been formed  around a core of people who are considered by themselves and others to be typical Americans, though they are rarely if ever a majority.  America’s rapid demographic shift -- immigrants  are now 13% of the US population, just 1% below their historical high -- is one of the reasons why Texeira and others see a bright future for the Democrats.

Hispanics and Asians both vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, though at different rates in different states. Texas and California are both majority non-white, but their voting behavior is quite different; both whites and non-whites vote Republican in higher percentages in Texas. Demography favoring Democrats  also includes changing (for the most part declining) birth rates.  Birth rates are highest among Hispanics, lowest among whites, though declining for each major population group..

Barone argues that at crucial points in American history, one or the other party has adjusted, and made a course correction, to become more competitive. Sometimes this occurred as a result of economic dislocations, or war, and sometimes, particular leaders moved a party in a new direction.  Parties can become associated with individual leaders, to their benefit or detriment, and sometimes it takes a few cycles to change this. 

The current contest for the Democratic nomination suggests that the push to the Left by progressive activists might be too rapid and too extreme for a significant share of the party faithful.  With increasing partisan consistency in both parties, one might think that independents as a share of all voters would have grown, with these voters unhappy with the direction of both arties. But the opposite has occurred, and most of the “moderates” favor one party or the other and are not truly independent.

The Democrats, the party of the collection of groups of non-typical Americans, may have the bigger problem holding together. Perhaps the Republicans, whose core is shrinking, may have an easier task becoming a majority if the progressive activists drive some Democrats off their reservation.

The passion surrounding Donald Trump, both pro and con is not a forever factor in American politics,  but his inroads among some traditionally Democratic voters, and losses among some traditionally Republican voters, may alter to some extent the  way each party chooses to appeal to the voters they need to form a majority.

Barone’s book , a short collection of essays and talks, is a fascinating brief history of the two parties and their fortunes, and a reminder that today’s apparent trend-lines are not forever.

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