WILL 1986 see a fundamental political realignment? If you look at the party labels that Americans attach to themselves, you can already find in the polls evidence that some shifting of allegiance has occurred, especially among white southerners. But the Republican gains there have not yet been matched in elections below the presidential level. And in a time when voters do not hesitate to split their tickets, some students believe there won't be a permanent realignment toward or away from any party.
Even so, it is still possible that the 1986 elections will see some further change. Here are some times and places in the political year to look for hints and whispers of the much vaunted realignment.
Candidate recruitment. Last year Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) scored a nearly successful coup when he got former Texas A&M quarterback Edd Hargett to run in the special election in the heretofore yellow-dog Texas First District. Mr. Gramm hoped that a Hargett victory would inspire strong Republican challengers to run in the several dozen southern districts that voted heavily for Ronald Reagan but still elect Democrats to the House. Mr. Hargett narrowly lost. But Republican strategists claim to see many strong Republican challengers anyway. Wait till later this spring, after filing dates, to see if they're right.
Primary participation. There will be hot Republican gubernatorial primaries, featuring prominent Democrats-turned-Republican, in Texas, Michigan and probably Florida. Watch Texas in May and Michigan in August to see if, in these two different but until recently Democratic states, Republican primary turnout is up heavily over recent years.
National versus local issues. You can't have a realignment that means anything without focus on a single set of issues. Yet congressional Republicans running for reelection seem to be emphasizing their support of local interests rather than the Reagan national platform -- from Iowa's Sen. Charles Grassley, who opposes the president's farm programs and Pentagon spending practices, to the House Republicans concerned about tax breaks for local manufacturing businesses who voted to scuttle Mr. Reagan's tax bill. In state elections, Republicans often emphasize state government activism rather than federal quiescence. In earlier elections Republicans emphasized Mr. Reagan's defense buildup, domestic spending cuts and tax cuts. By Sept. 15 you'll be able to see if Republicans are running as backers of the Reagan tax reform, the Reagan budget cuts or whatever the president's major initiative is by then.
Party-line appeals. 1984 was less a Republican than an incumbent year: more members of Congress were returned to office than ever before in American history. Most were Democrats, even as Mr. Reagan carried 49 states. Yet Mr. Reagan has also made it plainer than it was in the 1970s that party labels can matter. Control of the Senate is very much up for grabs in 1986. Watch, around mid-October when things get hot, whether the Republicans are arguing that Democratic control would stymie Mr. Reagan's program -- or if Democrats are calling for a check and balance on the president.
The bottom line. Of course the results in November will give something like a definitive answer -- but only for 1986. The great legendary beast of realignment takes much longer to come fully into view.