A couple days ago Jeff Zeleny wrote an article in the New York Times on the Democrats’ “weakening” grip on the South. If you picked up a newspaper in the past six months, odds are you have seen the dismal outlook for southern Democrats this year. However, Zeleny takes this information a step further. He suggests this year is a result of a deeper historical trend. He attributes the fall of Southern Democrats as an ongoing extension of a southern realignment. In other words, this election cycle isn’t merely an aberration but apart of a much larger trend of Democratic disappearance from the South. It’s an interesting hypothesis but it doesn’t hold up.
Zeleny’s article isn’t completely off. However, the article presents contemporary evidence to make the case for something that already culminated 16-years ago. Here is what I mean: very few political scientists debate that some sort of realignment occurred in the South; however, very few political scientists will argue that a realignment is continuing to occur as we speak. Putting aside some of the more nuanced details of realignment theory, there is a wide acceptance that the 1994 election (aka the Republican Revolution) was important in some regard. Political scientists have described the southern realignment as everything from a full-blown partisan realignment coming to fruition in 1994; to elite “sorting” over several decades; to a secular realignment (Abramowitz and Saunders 1998); to the triumph of the burgeoning conservative movement (Critchlow 2007). However, all of these definitions and scholarship point to 1994, not 2010. The forces that initiated and built momentum for that election are long dormant. Nearly every explanation of the southern realignment from the invention of air-conditioning (Polsby 2004), to repercussions of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill (Carmines and Stimson 1989), to the importance of abortion in polarizing the parties (Adams 1997), has come and gone. Perhaps more importantly, at the moment there is no realignment to explain.
Simply because Democrats are going to lose seats in the South does not mean that the South is going to “realign.” Before the 1994 election there was not only a drop in Democratic seats in the House, but there were significant ideological changes. In other words, southern Democrats were not only dropping in frequency (shown on left from NYT) but the ideological make-up of southern Democrats in Congress became more liberal (shown below). The graph below charts the ideological change in northern and southern Democrats since the 84th Congress (1955). It ranges on a scale from liberal (-1) to conservative (+1). Therefore, the closer to -1 the line gets, the more liberal the group is voting. From the 90th (1967) to the 104th Congresses (1994) southern Democrats accumulated a much more liberal voting record. Most of this is explained by ideological “sorting.” Conservatives in the South during this period rightfully became, or started voting for, Republicans. After 1994 this trend abruptly ends. Since then the 104th Congress both northern and southern Democrats moved slightly in the conservative direction. Granted, the party as a whole is much more liberal than it was in 1965, but the fact that ideology has remained constant for the past 16 years is important. Since 1994 there has been no sorting or significant ideological change in Congress or among the electorate.
What better explains southern Democrats poor electoral chances are a couple of factors. First, the economy remains in the dumps. Without a turn around in job creation or a significant (I mean REALLY significant) boost in economic growth, the incumbent party is going to lose seats. Second, Pelosi & company recruited a more diverse group of candidates. In 2006, they sacrificed ideological purity for more conservative candidates that could get elected in districts Democrats normally had no business competing in. It should come without surprise that these conservative Democrats are now on the chopping block. With a poor economy and bad Nancy Pelosi pictures haunting them at every turn, conservative Democrats are understandably facing difficult opposition.
This is all pretty basic stuff. While Democratic fortunes look bad, they aren’t realignment bad. Rather, this appears to be a normal election for an incumbent party placed in these kinds of conditions. Regardless, the Democratic “grip on the South” was lost 16 years ago when mullets were still quasi-acceptable, Ace of Base was still seeing the “Sign,” and Bill Clinton was a terribly ineffective president. Today, things are different…