By any measure, President Bush and his fellow Republicans had a good night on Nov. 2. The question now is whether the election results set the GOP up for a good decade -- or more.
As some partisan operatives and political scientists see it, Bush's reelection victory and simultaneous Republican gains in the House and Senate suggest that an era of divided government and approximate parity between the major parties is giving way to an era of GOP dominance. By this light, the Republican advantage on the most important issues of the day -- the fight against terrorism, most of all -- and the party's uncontested control of the federal government leave it in a position to win long-term loyalty among key voter blocs and craft an enduring majority.
If so, 2004 would qualify as what academics call a "realignment election."
Among a core of political analysts, nearly every presidential victory is scrutinized for evidence of an incipient realignment: a shift in voter allegiances from one party to the other in ways that can shape politics far into the future. Most predictions of realignments over the years have proved premature, and there are plenty of skeptics this time. These people argue that Bush's relatively narrow victory and the Republican victories in Congress should be taken at face value -- a close election in a time of war that broke in favor of the incumbent party -- and nothing more.
The realignment debate underway since Nov. 2 is more than an academic parlor game. If Republicans have indeed seized the upper hand in national politics in a fundamental way, the implication for Democrats is that radical changes in their electoral strategies, and even issue positions, are needed to become competitive again. But if the 2004 election was essentially a coin toss that happened to go Bush's way, the opposition party can simply try a little harder and hope for better luck next time.
"Something fundamental and significant happened in this election that creates an opportunity for" the Republicans to remake national politics over the long term, said Ken Mehlman, who managed Bush's reelection campaign and was tapped by the president after the election to be the next chairman of the Republican National Committee. "The Republican Party is in a stronger position today than at any time since the Great Depression."
Liberal political analyst Ruy Teixeira is among many analysts not buying it. Two years ago, he co-wrote a book predicting an emerging Democratic dominance of national politics. That certainly has not happened yet -- but neither has the opposite, he believes. The electorate this year "tilted, but it didn't tilt very much," Teixeira said.
"If the war on terror is such a realigning issue, how come Bush only got 51 percent of the vote?" he asked. By Teixeira's lights, the president took advantage of the natural power of incumbency, which is accentuated in wartime, and gave scant emphasis to his second-term policy agenda on such issues as overhauling Social Security, which polls show leaves many voters uneasy. "It's hard to read [the results] in a serious way as a mandate for much of anything," Teixeira said.
The post-election realignment debate is in some ways an echo of the debate among political analysts during the campaign about whether independent-minded "swing voters" still hold the key to electoral success, or whether politics has entered a new phase that places a greater premium on "the base" -- building party loyalty, and ensuring that these activists vote in higher percentages than the opposition loyalists. Bush and Mehlman pursued a strategy that put an emphasis on expanding the base, and it paid off.
This election was the first in which exit polls showed equal numbers of self-identified Republicans and Democrats -- both at 37 percent -- erasing what had been a decades-long advantage for Democrats, 4 percent in 2000. In addition to the House and Senate gains, Bush received a higher raw vote total than any candidate in history (Kerry's total was second highest) and was the first presidential candidate to break the 50 percent barrier since 1988. On a percentage basis, he improved on his 2000 performance in 48 states.
Most significantly, in the view of people who suspect a realignment, exit polls showed Bush cutting into Democratic advantages with some historically Democratic groups -- especially Hispanics, who gave Bush 42 percent of their votes, compared with 35 percent in 2000.
However, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) was able to stay competitive by increasing Democratic voter turnout. And exit polls showed that self -identified independents favored the Democrat -- by dramatic margins in some of the most important battleground states. In Florida and Ohio, for instance, Kerry won independents by 18 points and 19 points, respectively.
"I'm not seeing that enduring majority," said Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. "The Republicans have won a series of close elections, but independents are not with them. I just don't see how you can have a realignment if you have swing voters turning against you."
Larry M. Bartels of Princeton University agreed, saying that Bush's victory was less likely to have been evidence of a new realignment than the "last gasp" of an old one that long ago sent the South and culturally conservative whites into the GOP column.
Among political scholars, there is an entire academic sub-specialty focusing on the arguments about realignments. The concept developed to describe long-term shifts, such as the labor-driven, urban-dominated coalition that Franklin D. Roosevelt assembled during the New Deal, and that helped Democrats dominate national politics for several decades. More recently, the dramatic migration of Southern states from being solidly Democratic to being overwhelmingly Republican in presidential and most congressional elections is an oft-cited example of realignment.
A preeminent scholar of realignment is Walter Dean Burnham at the University of Texas at Austin, the author 33 years ago of "Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics." He was out of the office and did not return messages during the week before Thanksgiving, but he recently told the Weekly Standard magazine that long-term trends favoring Republicans among culturally conservative and hawkish voters came to full flower in 2004. He predicted: "If Republicans keep playing the religious card along with the terrorism card, this could last a long time."
Yale political scientist David R. Mayhew two years ago wrote a book calling the entire notion of realignments a fiction, at least at the presidential level. In the 15 presidential elections since World War II, he noted, the incumbent party has kept power eight times and lost it seven times. "You can't get any closer to a coin toss than this," he said. "At the presidential level, the traits of the candidates are so important that they blot out party identification."
But some Democrats said it would be complacent for their party to simply wait for better candidates or better luck. "Republicans are going to do everything they can to maximize their current position of ascendancy, and they have a lot of levers with which to do that," said Howard Wolfson, a former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The GOP aim, Wolfson said, appears to be to use programs to build new constituencies. Social Security is an example. The program helped create generations of voters loyal to Democrats. Bush's plans to transform Social Security with individual investment accounts may weaken the program overall, he said, but may attract a generation of younger and more affluent voters to the GOP.
Mark Gersh, a leading elections analyst with the Democratic-supporting National Committee for an Effective Congress, said he does not believe a realignment has occurred, but he does fear that the results highlight serious structural problems for Democrats. In addition to the higher number of Republican-leaning states -- a major GOP advantage in the Senate -- the Democrats are getting trounced in the outer suburbs of metropolitan regions. While these areas still produce relatively few votes, they are the fastest-growing areas of the country. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that Bush won 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties.
"If the Democrats don't do well" in places and with groups "that are growing faster than others," said Gersh, "they are going to be in trouble."