Still Some Signs of an Elephant's Edge
Publisher's note: The author of this post is Andy Taylor, who is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University (he does not speak for the university) for the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.
RALEIGH It's fair to say that America has not had a true majority party since about 1968. There have been times of unified government, of course, but these have been fleeting, and when one party has held both the White House and the reins in Congress, its grip has felt somewhat tenuous.
Many talked about impending realignment immediately following the 1980, 1992, and 2008 elections, but any such idea was extinguished by the following midterm.
A decade ago I wrote of the "Elephant's Edge" - important procedural, electoral, and economic advantages enjoyed by Republicans as George W. Bush began his second term. The GOP's upper hand, I noted, however, did little to alter a basic parity that existed in party politics.
Between Nixon's and Clinton's first elections, divided government only took the form of a Republican presidency and Democratic congressional majorities. Republicans were viewed by the public as exhibiting superior characteristics, like strong leadership, a robust foreign policy, and responsible management of the macroeconomy, on matters Americans thought were necessary in a successful chief executive.
Democratic presidential candidates had a terrible time keeping together a national coalition of Southern conservatives, African-Americans, and northern urban ethnics, but the party's legislators were masters of pork-barrel spending and constituency service citizens desired of their congressional representation.
Today, however, things look different. The Democrats have won four of the past six presidential elections. The Republican majority in the House is the largest since the Depression, and the party's current Senate majority is only one seat off its healthiest of that period. What happened?
The news for Republicans is quite good. They currently occupy 32 governorships and control both bodies of the legislature in 30 states and one body in eight others. The dominance at this level has permitted the GOP to redistrict most congressional and state legislative seats for two cycles now and, through patronage, to attract committed, experienced, and wonkish leaders.
The party has mobilized a grass-roots movement using the Internet and traditional media, including talk radio. Innovative right-of-center ideas are generated by a wide array of national and state-level think tanks.
The promise of advancement up the political career ladder produces a deep pool of talented candidates who can count on significant support from a well-organized party apparatus, local conservative activists, and enthusiastic donors.
Democrats, on the other hand, have seen their machine disintegrate. Today their fractured supporters are more enamored of identity politics than their predecessors who held middle-class aspirations and pushed for economic policies with appeal across demographic divisions. This helps explain the strong support for Republicans among working-class whites.
The Obama boomlet aside, the young, traditionally a Democratic cohort, are tuned out; a result of polarization and the "dirtiness" of politics, according to some, because of their focus on self, according to others.
At the top of the ticket, the party's disadvantages are not as apparent. Democrats tend to vote in presidential years, and recent demographic shifts have some commentators talking about an emerging Democratic "lock" on the Electoral College as traditional swing states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania appear increasingly blue.
But things are changing there, too. The Republican energy down ballot generated perhaps the most talented presidential field in recent history. The initial field features nine former or sitting governors, five such senators, and three individuals with tremendously successful careers outside of politics.
The party's breadth and diversity have created real competition. The GOP nominations in 1980, 1988, 1996, 2008, and 2012 were all claimed by the runner-up in the immediately previous open contest. This time around, the only candidates who experienced some success in past cycles - Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum - struggled. Jeb Bush, the scion of GOP royalty, is languishing. Ron Paul's support isn't available to his son Rand.
Contrast this with the Democrats' supposedly "open" contest. It is dominated by two white senior citizens, one of whom won silver medal the last time the party had a genuine race. If the GOP had a field like that, the media would lambast it for being stagnant and grossly out of touch.
The obstreperous House Republican conference and the rise of Donald Trump have some Republicans worried that theirs is the party facing the more difficult challenges. Its approval ratings are in the 30s.
Continued "failures" by the establishment - like a Bush defeat next year to add to those of John McCain and Mitt Romney - might open a debilitating rift. But, as some even in left-of-center media outlets like Molly Ball of The Atlantic Monthly and Matt Yglesias of Vox.com have written, it's the Democrats who currently face the stiffest headwinds.