By Gerald Warburg
Election Day in 2008 yielded a much-studied map of the historic Barack Obama victory. In red and blue, it portrayed a coast-to-coast Democratic Party victory, with the only the South and parts of Appalachia, pockets in the industrial Midwest, and the dry lands between the Rockies and Sierras dominated by the GOP. It was hailed by the New York Times as ushering in what some analysts predicted would be a generation of political dominance for Democrats.
Exactly twenty-four months later, overly optimistic Democrats were hit by the Tea Party tidal wave. Not only did Republicans seize back control of the House, they also won control of numerous governorships and state legislatures, thereby seizing control of reapportionment, voter registration and gerrymandering electoral districts for the decade ahead. Republican Party officials subsequently built a farm team so strong that more than a dozen credible candidates emerged to try to succeed President Obama. So much for the Democrats’ generational mandate.
As analysts study the upcoming vote in 2016, they would do well to recall this comeuppance. It serves to remind us that little remains static in our politics, even when we consider efforts at Bush-Clinton restoration. The pace of political change is itself accelerating. Americans have long been restless, ready to try another tack, or to move to another town to advance their interests. The map will change again, and soon.
Our post-World War II politics have been shaken repeatedly. Suburban white flight offered openings to Eisenhower and Nixon. Johnson’s emphasis on civil rights and social programs yielded a GOP southern strategy and anti-government platform exalted by Reagan and two Bush presidencies. The Obama revolution flipped long reliably GOP states, most notably Virginia. But in the process, Democratic Party grip was lost in less progressive states such as Arkansas and West Virginia.
Today, we are told that Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy, is not even in play for the GOP, so reliably Democratic have its suburban voters become. Democrats even have designs on Georgia and Arizona, where changing voting patterns among suburban white voters and growing Hispanic populations suggest opportunities for party growth. Yet the Republican party maintains several critical advantages in its control over statehouses, and its deep bench of young policymakers. And Democrats have cause for concern when their ‘fresh’ national faces are dominated by Social Security eligible politicians such as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.
As Election Day 2016 approaches, the fact is both parties are in tumult. Internal party warfare claimed many Republican casualties even before the widely boycotted Trump Convention in Cleveland. Grassroots activists dominated by the Tea Party are deeply suspicious of party regulars in Washington. Having brought down Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, they assail Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Scores of prominent GOP officials have refused to endorse the Trump candidacy.
On the Democratic side, progressive activists who enlisted with Bernie Sanders have little enthusiasm for what they see as a status quo candidate—even though electing a liberal woman in Hillary Clinton would represent a triumph for many. They look wistfully at third party candidates and have called for a ‘revolution’ to reshape the Democratic party platform.
These developments are consequential. This is the first election since World War II where control of all three branches of the federal government is clearly at stake. In addition, this promises to be the first election in a generation where the central debate is not big government vs. small. Rather, it is a debate about America’s role in the world—interventionist versus isolationist, pro-trade versus protectionist, pursuing multilateral solutions versus America First.
What, then, will be key bellwethers on Election Night? We all know about Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida from the ‘hanging chad’ slow count in 2000 and the Bush-Kerry battle in 2004. Keys to look for will be turnout and party loyalty. Can Trump enlist enough Reagan Democrats to overcome the Never-Trump GOP voters? Can Clinton secure enough of the Sanders vote despite her ill-received efforts to enlist disaffected Republicans? Will African-Americans show the same presidential year enthusiasm for Hillary (or fear of Donald) that they did in supporting Obama? Will independents vote for major party candidates?
We know the cities are Democratic party strongholds. We know parts of the heartland, from the South to the industrial Midwest are not enamored of the status quo and thus will look for a ‘change’ candidate. So, once again, the suburbs and the exurbs will be key. Watch North Carolina and Indiana. Watch suburban Atlanta and Phoenix. Trends very early in the evening on election night should give us a sense where we are headed in the months and years ahead.
Change is taking place in real time within the American electorate. Two new political parties are likely to emerge after election night. In the wake of this tumultuous election season, there will be great opportunities for policy activists of all political persuasions.
Gerald Warburg teaches classes on legislative strategy, NGO best practices and the future public policy agenda at UVa’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy