America in an Age of Open Field Politics
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
This year’s Republican success will likely prove to be no more permanent than the 2006–2008 Democratic successes were.
In my analyses of American politics since the 2006 elections, I have been making a distinction between periods of trench warfare politics and periods of open field politics. Periods of trench warfare politics are times when the lines of political conflict remain relatively fixed, with little change in partisan preference or issue focus. Periods of open field politics are when the lines of political conflict oscillate wildly, with vast changes in partisan preference and issue focus.
Looking back over the last 40 years during which I have been principal co-author of the 20 editions of The Almanac of American Politics, I can discern clear, dividing lines between periods of trench warfare politics and periods of open field politics. From 1967 to 1983, I would argue, we were in a period of open field politics. The nation was rent by agonizing controversies over the wars in Vietnam and on poverty; by urban riots and campus rebellions; by disenchantment with two experienced and talented but also flawed presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; by the environmental movement and the Watergate scandal; by inflation and recession and stagflation. In this period we saw wide variations in voting behavior, including serious Independent presidential candidacies in 1968 and 1980, near-ties in the presidential popular vote in 1968 and 1976, and substantial Republican presidential victories in 1972 and 1980. We also see considerable, though lesser, variation in partisan percentages in the popular vote for the House, with Republicans coming near to popular vote pluralities in 1968 and 1980 and Democrats winning the popular vote by nearly a 3–2 margin in 1974.
From 1983 to 1991 was a period of trench warfare politics, in which Americans consistently favored Republicans in presidential elections and Democrats in congressional elections.
There followed, in my view, a period of trench warfare politics between 1983 and 1991, in which Americans consistently favored Republicans in presidential elections and Democrats in congressional elections. So static were these preferences that political scientists came up with theories of a Republican lock on the presidency and a Democratic lock on Congress.
Those theories were upset in the period of open field politics between 1991 and 1995. In those four years a Democrat won the presidency, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress, and Independent candidates, announced and putative, led in polls in the race for president in spring 1992 (Ross Perot) and fall 1995 (Colin Powell).
Then, following the budget battle between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, we had a period of trench warfare politics between 1995 and 2005. The parties—politicians and voters—were like two equally sized armies in a culture war, fighting it out over small bits of terrain that made the difference between victory and defeat. There was a convergence of preference in presidential and congressional races, with a level of straight-ticket voting higher than at any other time since the 1940s. The demographic variable most highly correlated with voting behavior was religion, or degree of religiosity, and positions on moral issues like abortion were highly correlated with partisan preference. The level of stability in partisan preferences in House races was higher than at any time since the 1980s.
Current polling shows Republicans doing better on the generic ballot question than at any time since Gallup first asked the question in 1942.
Finally, it has seemed to me that we have been in a period of open field politics since 2005, and continue to be. Some have interpreted the sharp increase in Democratic percentages in 2006 and 2008 (when Barack Obama received a higher percentage of the popular vote than any Democratic presidential nominee in history except Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson) as a permanent realignment toward the Democratic Party. Current polling, however, shows Republicans doing better on the generic ballot question (Which party’s candidate would you vote for in the race for the House of Representatives?) than at any time since Gallup first asked the question in 1942. (Earlier this year, Gallup reported that it first asked the question in 1950; someone prowling through the dusty archives evidently discovered one or more earlier queries.) If the results of the upcoming election are anything like these poll results, Republicans will win a majority of the popular vote for the House—possibly the largest percentage they have received since 1946. That will be a sharp swing from the Democratic majorities in 2006 and 2008, which were the party’s best showings since the mid-1980s, when it was still winning the popular vote for the House in the South by wide margins.
Starting in 1994, Republicans carried the popular vote for the House in the South every time.
So far I have just been reporting conclusions; let me present some data. Most political science studies tend to look at the presidential vote; I thought it would be illuminating to look at the vote for the House of Representatives. I have calculated the popular vote for the House in full percentages for Republicans and Democrats in each election from 1946 to 2008. In addition, I have calculated the percentages for the parties in the North and in the South, defined as the 11 Confederate states plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. The reader may note that the farther one goes back in history, the more the national percentages come to resemble the percentages in the North. That’s because the South, which cast 32% of the popular vote for the House in 2008, cast as little as 11% of the popular vote for the House in 1958, 1950, and 1946. Multiple factors discouraged voting in the South—poll taxes which tended to discourage low-income voters, restrictive and even violent measures to prevent black Americans from voting, and the fact that Democrats won almost all general elections by overwhelming margins. Republican presidential candidates started getting significant percentages of the vote in the South in 1952 and started to carry the region in 1972 (though not in 1976). But Republicans did not make a similar breakthrough until after 1992, the first year since Reconstruction that Republican House candidates got a higher percentage of the vote in the South than in the North. Starting in 1994, Republicans carried the popular vote for the House in the South every time.
The following table shows the percentages for Republican and Democratic House candidates in each election in the nation as a whole and then in the North and the South. Because of differences in how the vote is counted (e.g., whether the vote for unopposed candidates is tabulated), these numbers may differ by 1% or so from those presented elsewhere; I think those differences are immaterial in understanding the broader picture. I have separated the periods of trench warfare politics and open field politics as I have defined them. Readers will note that the parties’ percentages vary by only 2% or 3% in periods of trench warfare politics but by 6% to 8% in periods of open field politics (which will be the case again in the current period if the election turns out as current polls suggest). I invite readers to weigh in on whether these categories make any sense in characterizing the elections before 1967.
During the 62 years from 1946 to 2008, Republicans have outpolled Democrats in House elections only a few times—in 1946 and 1952 and then not again until the six elections between 1994 and 2006. However, Republicans outpolled Democrats in the North more often in the earlier period—in 1946, in the four elections between 1950 and 1956, in 1966 and 1968, in 1980—and then only twice in recent years, in 1994 and 2002. In 2008, Republicans did worse in House elections in the North than they have in any election starting in 1946. But they have carried the South in every House election starting in 1994 and seem likely to do so for some time to come, however they fare in the North, inasmuch as they were able to do so in 2008.
As I have indicated, I expect a rebound in Republican percentages in 2010 that will make the current period of open field politics look as volatile as the previous 1967–1983 and 1991–1995 periods. But I think it’s possible that this year’s Republican percentages will prove to be no more permanent than I believe the 2006–2008 Democratic percentages will have been proven to be. You don’t know a period of open field politics has been transformed into a period of trench warfare politics until several years after it has happened—or at least so has been my experience.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
FURTHER READING: Barone announces that “Obama’s Policies Drag Down Democratic Governors,” argues the American voters are “More Anti-Government than Anti-Incumbent,” highlights the “GOP Battle Cry,” and asks “Why do Parties Last Longer in Britain?”
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.