Saturday, November 18, 2006

Political Parties Rebound After Midterm Elections

David Rohde, who's a political scientist at Duke University, argues in today's New York Times that the two major political parties have enjoyed a recent resurgence, a process culminating in this year's elections:

THE midterm elections have been widely viewed as a sudden change of direction, with Democrats seizing the wheel from Republicans. While that may be true, the big electoral news — news that has gone largely unnoticed — is this: After decades of weakness, after sideswipes from independent candidates, the two major parties are back. Indeed, they are more potent and influential than at any time in the past century.
Rohde next discusses the long-term decline of parties in the U.S., focusing on the trend toward "candidate-centered" politics and the weakening of party discipline in government. One reason for renewed party strength, according to Rohde, is the vast financial resources available to the national party organizations in recent decades:

But it’s not all about money — there’s also candidate recruitment. Sure, it’s been a while since parties stood by and waited for the primaries to produce a slate of candidates. But this year marked the apex of the trend, with the parties pursuing and supporting attractive candidates with greater fervor than ever before.

Representative Rahm Emanuel and Senator Charles Schumer, leaders of the Democratic Party’s campaign committees, were assiduous in recruiting candidates they thought could win while discouraging others from making a try. (Why, you might ask, did the Democrats support a candidate like Jim Webb in Virginia — someone who is outside the party’s traditional orthodoxy? The longer that parties are barred from power, the more likely they are to accept candidates and strategies that depart from the wishes of “the base.”)

The behavior of voters in 2006 was perhaps the greatest sign of party strength. Voters approached the race more like British voters casting votes for a parliamentary majority than like Americans weighing the unique merits of individual candidates.

Exit polls and other research show that voting has become more strongly correlated with party identification and that ticket splitting has declined. Voters also see party control as more consequential.

No result from 2006 was more striking in this regard than the Rhode Island Senate race. Exit polls showed that the incumbent Republican, Lincoln Chafee, had a robust approval rating, 63 percent. Yet his constituents voted him out of office largely because 75 percent of them disapproved of his fellow Republican, President Bush.

The 2006 election results confirm that the parties have been growing stronger, not weaker. The current political environment, in which two parties with sharply divergent views vie for power in closely contested elections, seems likely to persist. As long as it does, powerful, centralized parties will dominate the land- scape.
Rohde's analysis sounds just about right to me, although I would point out that trends in party identification are highly volatile: A Gallup Poll conducted after the elections found that the recent strength Democrats have seen in voter identification has come at the expense of the GOP, with more voters simply abandoning the Republicans and identifying as independents. The Democratic base in not expanding, and with current electoral volatility, a shift in party fortunes in government could once again loosen partisan attachments among a wary electorate -- there's been no partisan realignment in 2006.

Rohde is one of the country's top election experts, and is coauther of Change and Continuity in the 2004 Election, one of the main voting and elections textbooks in the field.

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