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The (Finally) Emerging Republican Majority

From the October 27, 2003 issue: GOP officials don't like to talk about it, but they have become the dominant party.

Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By FRED BARNES
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A FTER THE 1972 AND 1980 ELECTIONS, Republicans said political realignment across the country would soon make them the dominant party. It didn't happen. Now, despite highly favorable signs in the 2002 midterm elections and the California recall, Republicans fear a jinx. Realignment? they ask. What realignment?

Matthew Dowd, President Bush's polling expert, notes heavy Republican turnout in 2002 and the recall, a splintering of the Democratic coalition, Republican gains among Latinos, and shrinking Democratic voter identification--all unmistakable signs of realignment. But he won't call it realignment. Whoa! says Bill McInturff, one of the smartest Republican strategists, let's not be premature. Before anyone claims realignment has put Republicans in control nationally, McInturff says, the GOP must win the White House, Senate, and House in 2004 and maybe even hold Congress in 2006. Bush adviser Karl Rove agrees. He recently told a Republican group that the realignment question won't be decided until 2004.

There's really no reason to wait. Realignment is already here, and well advanced. In 1964, Barry Goldwater cracked the Democratic lock on the South. In 1968 and 1972, Republicans established a permanent advantage in presidential races. In the big bang of realignment, 1994, Republicans took the House and Senate and wiped out Democratic leads in governorships and state legislatures. Now, realignment has reached its entrenchment phase. Republicans are tightening their grip on Washington and erasing their weakness among women and Latinos. The gender gap now exposes Democratic weakness among men. Sure, an economic collapse or political shock could reverse these gains. But that's not likely.

Look at the recall. With two ballot questions, no party primaries, and a short campaign, it wasn't a normal election. But it displayed all the signs of realignment. Republicans were enthusiastic, Democrats downcast, Latinos in play, and the gender gap was stood on its head. The result: California is no longer a reliably Democratic state. Until the October 7 recall that replaced Democratic governor Gray Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republicans hadn't won a major statewide race since 1994. Bush spent millions there in 2000 but lost California by 11 points to Al Gore, who spent zilch in the state.

Yet in the recall, Republicans captured 62 percent of the vote. Bush's approval rating was slightly positive (49 to 48 percent), roughly the same as in other states. In the Fox News exit poll, 39 percent of voters identified themselves as Democrats, 37 percent as Republicans--a big GOP gain since last year when the Democratic lead was 7 or 8 points. A solid majority of women voted to recall Davis and elect a Republican. According to the Los Angeles Times exit poll, 41 percent of Latinos voted for a Republican governor--over a Latino Democrat, Cruz Bustamante. California is now competitive.

Democrats insist the recall merely showed anger against incumbents. In fact, it showed California was catching up with a powerful Republican trend over the past decade. In 1992, Democrats captured 51 percent of the total vote in House races to 46 percent for Republicans. By 2002, those numbers had flipped--Republicans 51 percent, Democrats 46 percent. And Republicans have held their House majority over five elections, including two in which Democratic presidential candidates won the popular vote. They won 230 House seats in 1994, 226 in 1996, 223 in 1998, 221 in 2000, and 229 in 2002. They also won Senate control in those elections.

These voting patterns fit Walter Dean Burnham's definition of realignment: "a sudden transformation that turns out to be permanent." Burnham is a University of Texas political scientist, just retired but still the chief theorist of realignment. He is neither a Republican nor a conservative.

The same Republican trend is true for state elections. In 1992, Democrats captured 59 percent of state legislative seats (4,344 to 3,031 for Republicans). Ten years later, Republicans won their first majority (3,684 to 3,626) of state legislators since 1952. In 1992, Democrats controlled the legislatures of 25 states to 8 for Republicans, while the others had split control. Today, Republicans rule 21 legislatures to 16 for Democrats. Governors? Republicans had 18 in 1992, Democrats 30. Today, Republicans hold 27 governorships, Democrats 23.

Not to belabor dry numbers, but Republicans have also surged in party identification. Go back to 1982, the year of the first midterm election of Ronald Reagan's presidency. The Harris Poll found Democrats had a 14-point edge (40 to 26 percent) as the party with which voters identified. By 1992, the Democratic edge was 6 points (36 to 30 percent) and last year, President Bush's midterm election, it was 3 points (34 to 31 percent).