The Washington Post
Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politicsby Earl Black, Merle Black
Divided America tells the biggest story in American politics today. It's the story behind the emergence of a ferocious power struggle between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats that is tearing the country's politics apart.
Drawing on extensive polling data and close analyses of presidential, senatorial, and congressional elections/b>/i>… See more details below
Divided America tells the biggest story in American politics today. It's the story behind the emergence of a ferocious power struggle between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats that is tearing the country's politics apart.
Drawing on extensive polling data and close analyses of presidential, senatorial, and congressional elections over the past fifty years, two eminent political scientists show, for the first time, how partisan warfare has reduced both major parties to minority status and locked them into fierce power struggles in each election cycle, thereby making America less stable and more difficult to govern.
Because the two major parties are now evenly balanced in the national electorate, control of the White House and Congress can shift dramatically with each election. Neither Republicans nor Democrats operate with any "lock" on the presidency, House of Representatives, or Senate, as demonstrated by the 2006 congressional elections.
Earl Black and Merle Black examine the party battles as they've played themselves out in the nation's five principal geographic areas. Each party has developed two important regional strongholds, as exemplified in the 2004 elections, when Republicans won all the electoral votes and sizable majorities of House and Senate seats in the South and Mountain/Plains states while the Democrats won almost all the electoral votes and large majorities in the Northeast and the Pacific Rim states. The Midwest is the perennial swing region.
The authors describe the enormous changes that have occurred in the electorates of each region over the past fifty years -- with emphasis on how the size and partisan affiliations of key groups have changed -- and show how these transformations have generated today's unstable two-party battles. Although the relentlessly competitive nature of modern American politics is generally appreciated, the regional causes underlying this new state of affairs are not well understood. Because neither Democrats nor Republicans can produce national majorities simply by sweeping their regional strongholds, they are locked in a fierce power struggle in each election. Divided America tells the story of these remarkable developments in clear, vigorous prose and provides a pragmatic understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each party.
For the foreseeable future, each party will be within striking distance of winning -- or losing -- political power in every national institution. Understanding the party battles in America's regions is vital to understanding how today's losers can become tomorrow's winners
The Washington Post
Politics by the numbers is the modus operandi of the Black brothers, twins who teach political science (Earl at Rice University, Merle at Emory University). Having focused on politics in the Southern states in three previous academic collaborations, the Blacks now divide the United States into five regions (South, Northeast, Pacific Coast, Midwest, Mountains/Plains), and explain how and why national electoral politics have become a close contest between two parties, Democrats and Republicans, that cannot claim permanent majority status. Most of the election data they examine comes from presidential elections; their analysis of races for the House of Representatives and the Senate come toward the end and are out of kilter with the results of the November 2006 House and Senate elections. Still, the Blacks' generalizations deserve consideration. They believe the Democrats are quite likely to retain advantages in the Northeast and Pacific Coast regions, while the Republicans are quite likely to win the South and Mountains/Plains regions in the 2008 election. That leaves the Midwest as the swing region. (The Blacks define the Midwest as 10 states, including Kentucky and West Virginia.) Though the book will probably fascinate politics junkies, the emphasis on statistics rather than lively anecdotes means rough going for qualitative rather than quantitative minds. 34 charts and tables. (Mar.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
"Forget the Middle East. The real struggle for the future will take place in the Middle West. As Earl and Merle Black show in this lucid and informative account, the smartest way to think about American politics is the old-fashioned way by region. Divided America explains why we will have close elections in this country as far as the eye can see. This is a complete picture of where we stand politically, with important historical context." Jonathan Alter, senior editor, Newsweek, author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
"Divided America is a sophisticated study of how Americans vote and why the country has become almost impossible to govern. It is a book of frustrating answers rather than the usual clueless questions. A valuable book." Richard Reeves, author of President Reagan and President Kennedy
"Bedside reading for Karl Rove wannabes preparing for 2008." Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"A thoughtful, thorough analysis of the undercurrents that have driven our polarized national politics in recent decades." The Washington Post Book World
"Divided America is merely brilliant." Cragg Hines, Houston Chronicle
"Voters should understand the nature of regional differences. Why the regions matter is the subject of Divided America." George Will, Newsweek
"A numbers junkie's look at what makes our political map red and blue." Karlyn Bowan, The Weekly Standard
"You can't understand the future of American politics without understanding the importance of the new regionalism. To understand how it works and why it matters you need to read Divided America." E.J. Dionne, Jr., syndicated columnist and author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right
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The biggest story of modern American politics -- a story with no end in sight -- is the ferocious power struggle between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats over each elected institution of the national government. Because the two major parties are now evenly balanced in the national electorate, control of the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives can shift with each round of elections. And because Republicans and Democrats disagree so fundamentally over the direction of countless public policies, changes in partisan control can seriously affect millions of people in the United States and even larger numbers elsewhere in the world.
America's tight national battle results from opposing political developments in five different regions. Each party has developed two regional strongholds: the Northeast and the Pacific Coast for the Democrats versus the South and the Mountains/Plains for the Republicans. The Midwest is the nation's swing region. In this opening chapter, however, our focus will be on the entire nation. Once national trends have been established, the rest of the book will show how Republicans and Democrats have worked themselves into distinctive tight corners. Regional strengths are offset by regional weaknesses. Democratic and Republican leaders can ordinarily aspire -- at best -- to narrow national victories.
Permanently competitive and ideologically charged politics is a new reality for America. Governing the United States requires agreement among "separated institutions sharing powers." America's unstable power politics generates relentlessly bitter conflicts over a huge range of domestic and foreign policies and motivates activists in both parties to compete fiercely all the time. The 9/11/01 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington restored national security issues to the forefront of American politics. In response, President George W. Bush's decision to confront terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq divided the nation along prowar and antiwar lines and further intensified the national party battle. Close national elections between ideologically distinct parties give American politics its harsh tones and its extraordinarily high stakes, thus magnifying the difficulties of governing the world's only superpower.
By comparison with the national landslides underlying Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal or Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, in 2000 Bush barely won the electoral vote and lost the popular vote. His victory in 2004 was solid but not overwhelming. He won reelection by an electoral vote margin of 53 percent to 47 percent and a popular vote majority of 51 percent to 48 percent. Had the Republicans lost either Ohio or Florida, their most challenging contests in large states, John Kerry would have been elected president. Republicans maintained their majority in the House of Representatives by the identical close margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. They did improve their majority in the Senate, emerging after the election with a lead of fifty-five to forty-five seats. Even in the Senate, however, Republicans lacked the sixty votes needed to break any determined Democratic filibuster.
Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats -- as politicians, financial contributors, activists, and voters -- are more than ever the driving forces in American politics. Ideological purity has been achieved most dramatically in Congress, where strong partisans prevail as both leaders and followers. Far more than they ever did in the past, senators and representatives in both parties vote with their leaders most of the time. Some of the most die-hard participants in American politics are the members of Congress who daily settle scores and recount the latest partisan outrages on network news, cable news, and C-SPAN.
Ideological purity is trickier to achieve in presidential politics. Here the fundamental challenge for each party is building winning coalitions that begin with a party's ideological base but also reach into the "center" of the electorate to achieve national majorities. Finding ways to disguise, finesse, or modify ideological positions that repel as well as attract centrist voters has thus become a basic task of campaign strategy. Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton all found creative ways to retain their most ideological partisans while attracting support that transcended their bases.
The tremendous personal, partisan, and ideological differences that polarize Democratic and Republican politicians are paralleled among the voters that make up the rival parties. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party -- white liberals plus minorities -- is a substantial majority among voters who claim to be Democrats, just as the Republicans' conservative wing -- white conservatives plus minorities -- makes up a large majority among voters who identify as Republicans. In 1976 only 37 percent of America's Democrats belonged to its liberal wing. In 2004 white liberals plus minorities comprised 63 percent of all Democrats. The size of the Republicans' conservative wing grew from 52 percent in 1976 to 66 percent in the 2004 election. Ideologically, as political scientists Alan I. Abramowitz and Kyle L. Saunders have shown, America's two major parties are more polarized than ever before.
Yet while liberals and conservatives are sizable majorities within their parties, their influence on American politics represents a tremendous leveraging of their actual size among all voters. In the 2004 presidential election, 15 percent of the voters were liberal Democrats, and 24 percent were conservative Republicans. Members of the two polar groups comprise about two-fifths of the entire electorate. Finding sufficient allies outside their respective bases to forge majorities is the perennial task of conservative Republican and liberal Democratic politicians.
Increased ideological clarity within the Republican and Democratic parties has made the American party battle more divisive than in the past. For decades Democrats had an influential conservative wing that moderated the policies pursued by national party leaders. Though located primarily in the South, conservative Democrats were also present in much of rural and small-town America. Along with moderate Democrats, conservative Democrats influenced policy and constrained the liberal wing of the party. As late as 1976, the Democratic Party included almost as many white conservatives (19 percent) as white liberals (22 percent). By 2004 conservative Democrats were almost extinct: white liberals outnumbered white conservatives 27 percent to 6 percent among all Democrats.
Republicans traditionally had a moderate wing, as well as a few liberals, that restrained its conservatives. Within the Republican Party, white moderates declined from 42 percent in 1976 to 34 percent in 2004. The white liberal wing of the Republican Party, only 8 percent of all Republicans in 1976, was down to 4 percent in 2004. Ideological splits within the parties have largely been transformed into sharpened ideological divisions between the parties. Leaders of both parties still have to formulate policies that will satisfy their moderates, but Democratic leaders do not worry about the opinions and interests of conservatives, just as Republican leaders pay no attention to liberal viewpoints.
America's confrontational politics, reported and interpreted by an extraordinarily diverse array of news media, talk radio, bloggers, and Internet advocacy forums on a nonstop basis, places extraordinary demands on politicians who aspire to the presidency or leadership roles in Congress. When each new wave in the political ocean is sincerely believed to make all the difference between winning or losing power, bitter fights can and do occur over practically everything. Robust conflict is obviously inherent in a democracy, but incessant personal attacks mean that especially thick skins are necessary for America's leading politicians. President Bush and Senator Kerry must have wondered from time to time if winning the White House was worth the personal abuse that each of them received during the 2004 presidential campaign.
A hallmark of the modern American power struggle is the revival of the Republicans as a governing party. Republicans once dominated American politics. Emerging from the Civil War as the victorious champions of Union and emancipation, for seven decades Republicans usually controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. GOP domination collapsed with the Great Depression. Under Roosevelt's charismatic and optimistic leadership, Democrats became the country's new majority party. In the New Deal era, Democrats won five straight presidential elections, a feat never again approached by either party. Indeed, Democrats held the White House and both branches of Congress in nine of the ten elections from 1932 through 1950.
It is now considerably more difficult for either party to control the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives at the same time. Between 1952 and 2004, national elections resulted in divided partisan control -- that is, one party controlled two institutions, and the other party controlled the third -- in 63 percent of the elections. Democrats last achieved unified control of the national government for more than a single Congress during Jimmy Carter's presidency in the late 1970s. Until their back-to-back victories in 2002 and 2004, Republicans had to look back to the 1920s to find a similar accomplishment.
Republicans' recovery from the Great Depression took generations. A good way to appreciate the GOP's utter devastation is to identify the points at which the Republican Party next won consecutive victories in specific national institutions. The initial Republican revival came in presidential elections, with General Dwight D. Eisenhower's victories in 1952 and 1956. The hero of World War II, untainted by the Republicans' domestic failures and unrivaled in the area of national security, reestablished the Republican Party in presidential politics. Republicans have won nine of the fourteen presidential elections from 1952 through 2004.
Presidential recovery did not extend to Congress. The GOP's first sustained majorities in the Senate arrived three decades after its presidential breakthrough. Consecutive majorities in 1980, 1982, and 1984, aided enormously by Reagan's decisive victories, reestablished the Republicans as a frequent governing party in the Senate. Between 1980 and 2004, Republicans were more successful than Democrats (eight to five victories) in controlling the Senate. Every senator is now well aware that partisan control of the chamber can change in the next election.
The House of Representatives proved far more resistant to Republican recovery. Democrats held the House in all but two of thirty-two congressional elections from 1930 through 1992. All Democrats and most Republicans believed that Democrats were an unchallengeable, permanent majority party. In 1994 Republicans achieved a breakthrough victory in the House. They did so by overcoming some Democratic incumbents and capturing many open seats. Many of their gains came in districts previously won by Republican presidential candidates. Republicans' success in the House of Representatives was no fluke. From 1994 through 2004, the Republicans won six consecutive national majorities. However, Republican House majorities have been slim and fragile in comparison with preceding Democratic majorities.
Republican gains in 1994 transformed the national political landscape far beyond the House of Representatives. Democrats' defeat in the House greatly magnified the stakes of the partisan power struggles already being waged over the White House and the Senate. It has been a long, long time since most American politicians really believed that partisan control of every single national institution could shift in every election cycle.
America's power struggle is waged in a political system that does not have a majority party. Close national elections rest upon the nearly equal size of the two minority parties. Drawing upon a half century of public opinion polling, figure 1.1 tracks the American party battle in the national electorate. Excluding independents, it charts the percentage of American voters who classified themselves as Republicans or Democrats in presidential elections from 1952 through 2004.
The Democratic Party's national advantage persisted long after the Great Depression and the Second World War. Although no longer attracting a majority of voters, midway through the twentieth century Democrats remained the dominant minority party. From 1952 through 1980, on average, 45 percent of all presidential voters were Democrats, while only 29 percent were Republicans. This substantial Democratic lead in the national electorate underlay virtually continuous Democratic control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, though obviously it did not produce similar success for the party's presidential candidates.
Reagan's presidency reshaped the national party battle. Beginning with his reelection in 1984, the wide gap between Democrats and Republicans narrowed to a smaller Democratic lead and, by 2004, to a partisan tie. During the presidential elections from 1984 through 2004, on average, Democrats fell to 39 percent, and Republicans rose to 36 percent of American voters. In the 2004 exit poll, 39 percent (rounding up) of voters were Republicans, and 38 percent were Democrats. A huge Democratic advantage in the electorate has thus narrowed to a partisan dead heat in the opening decade of the twenty-first century.
To understand the dynamics of modern American politics, the crucial first step is to analyze voters by their race or ethnicity. In the United States, the three main building blocks of Republican and Democratic coalitions are whites, African Americans, and New Minorities (Latinos plus other minorities). For any group, the key political resources are its size and unity. How big is the group? How unified is it politically? The answers to these basic questions reveal the big picture of party politics in America.
We begin with size (see figure 1.2). In presidential elections, what proportion of voters are whites, African Americans, and New Minorities? White voters have historically dominated the electorate. As late as 1952, whites made up 96 percent of voters in the United States. Since the 1950s, new groups have entered the electorate and reduced the relative size of white voters. Black Americans, ruthlessly excluded from the Southern electorate, began to participate in large numbers in the 1960s because of the civil rights movement and federal voting-rights legislation. African Americans now cast about one-ninth of the presidential vote. Latinos, America's largest minority group in the general population, increasingly began to vote in the 1980s. In 2004, however, Latinos continued to make up a smaller percentage of actual voters than did African Americans.
Much attention has been focused on the growing diversity of the electorate. Although whites are a smaller share of voters than fifty years ago, it is also crucial to emphasize that whites remain the largest group of voters in the United States. According to the 2004 exit poll, 78 percent of American voters were whites, 11 percent were African Americans, and 8 percent were Latinos. Other minorities, mainly Asian Americans, account for the remaining 3 percent of voters. Because partisanship differs profoundly by race and ethnicity, it is essential to analyze each group separately. Whites are much more closely divided between Republicans and Democrats than are the New Minorities or African Americans.
White Americans have a plurality -- rather than a majority -- party. We use the term partisan realignment to indicate the emergence of a new plurality or majority advantage among a particular group of voters. Among white voters, party-identification trends over the past fifty years clearly show a realignment -- stopping short of a majority -- favoring the Republicans (see "White Voters" in figure 1.2). The old Democratic advantage among white voters, established during the New Deal, ended during the Reagan years. An average Democratic lead of 12 points between 1952 and 1980 (43 percent to 31 percent) gave way to a 6-point Republican edge during the elections from 1984 through 2004 (40 percent to 34 percent). President George W. Bush's first term widened his party's advantage among white Americans. In the 2004 presidential election, 45 percent of white voters were Republicans, while only 31 percent were Democrats. This crucial partisan shift in America's immense white electorate has made the Republican Party once again genuinely competitive.
America's New Minorities have a majority party (see "New Minorities Voters" in figure 1.2). However, the Democratic advantage among Latinos and Asian Americans is considerably less than that prevailing among African-American voters. In 2004, according to the aggregated state exit polls, 52 percent of Latino voters were Democrats, and 29 percent identified themselves as Republicans. Democrats outnumbered Republicans 40 percent to 28 percent among Asian Americans. Among the entire group of New Minority voters in the 2004 election, Democrats led Republicans by 49 percent to 28 percent.
Black Americans have an unmistakable majority party. From the early 1950s through 2004, huge majorities of African Americans have called themselves Democrats, while only tiny minorities have reported a Republican identification. After peaking in 1968 at the end of Johnson's Great Society administration, blacks' identification with the Democratic Party stabilized at exceptionally high levels. Democratic identification among African-American voters averaged 78 percent during the elections from 1984 through 2004, 44 points higher than the average Democratic identification among white voters. In 2004, 78 percent of African-American voters were Democrats, and only 8 percent were Republicans. In no other racial or ethnic group did one political party maintain such overwhelming majority support.
America's transformed party battle, its shift from a substantial Democratic edge to a fight between parties of roughly equal size, is thus primarily the product of the long-term realignment of white voters dating from the Reagan presidency. Because of the size of the white electorate, and because white voters are the main source of increased Republican competitiveness, the dynamics of the white realignment need to be examined.
How did the Republicans engineer their white realignment? In modern American politics, ideology plays a central role in separating the parties. Conceding white liberals to the Democrats, Republican leaders have pursued two basic goals in their efforts to shift the partisan balance among white voters: realign the conservatives and neutralize the moderates. Efforts to achieve these strategic objectives were targeted especially at the Southern white electorate, where both conservatives and moderates had long been Democrats, but they were pursued in the rest of the nation as well. The long-term results have been the development of large Republican majorities among white conservatives, the disappearance of sizable Democratic leads among white moderates, and the consolidation of Democratic strength among white liberals.
Accordingly, the most realistic way to understand the divisions among white voters is to classify them according to their ideology -- as liberals, moderates, and conservatives -- and then to examine the changing partisanship of these ideological groups. Using the national election exit polls conducted by news organizations, figure 1.3 shows that the relative sizes of the three ideological groups remained fairly similar from 1976 through 2004. On average, nearly half of white voters classified themselves as moderates, about one-third thought of themselves as conservatives, and fewer than one-fifth identified themselves as liberals.
As late as 1976, conservative white voters were far from sold on the Republican Party (see "Conservatives: Republican Realignment" in figure 1.3). Only two-fifths of conservative whites thought of themselves as Republicans, one-third of them were independents, and one-fourth were still Democrats. White conservatives, those individuals most likely in principle to identify as Republicans, became the main targets of GOP realignment efforts. Some conservatives were longtime voters who had been raised as Democrats or who thought of themselves as independents. Other targets were conservatives who had seldom or never voted. Republican efforts toward these individuals sought to get them registered and voting.
Reagan's presidency was indeed a watershed era for many white Americans. He was elected in 1980 on a platform that promised to strengthen the military, cut taxes, reduce domestic government spending, and honor traditional moral, religious, and cultural values. "Ronald Reagan's legacy as a party builder has gotten short shrift," former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich observed shortly after the former president's death in 2004. "One of President Reagan's great strengths was his commitment to big ideas and his willingness to remain cheerful no matter what the difficulties were," Gingrich emphasized. "It made him likable and approachable and easy to support. Despite being the son of an alcoholic father, entering the job market in the Great Depression, and watching his career in movies fade out, Reagan remained a steadfast optimist. That disposition was a tremendous, politically potent change from the angry pessimism of traditional conservatism."
Reagan's optimism and performance in office legitimated Republicanism as the party of choice for most American conservatives. When his presidency began, fewer than half of conservative white voters (48 percent) in the United States were Republicans. Only in the West, where Reagan's brand of conservative Republicanism had originated, did majorities of white conservative voters already think of themselves as Republicans. Abandoning the me-too approach of earlier Republican presidents, the Californian advocated conservative policies on a wide range of issues. Across the nation, Reagan attracted large numbers of white conservatives into the Republican Party. By 1988, at the end of his presidency, 63 percent of conservative white voters were Republicans, 23 percent were independents, and only 15 percent still thought of themselves as Democrats.
Even more important for the American party battle, the conservative gains that Reagan stimulated have endured. In 2004, 76 percent of white conservative voters were Republicans, while a mere 8 percent were still Democrats. Realigning conservatives created reliable bases of support in many areas of the country where the Republican Party had previously been an uncompetitive minority. The increased conservative presence -- especially in the South and the West -- reshaped the national Republican Party.
Reagan's philosophy and governing style directly challenged several of the most important assumptions that had dominated American politics since the New Deal. He called for reductions in the rate of increase of federal programs and for lowering income tax rates. Instead of accommodating to the Cold War, Reagan believed that Russian Communism was an evil economic and political system that delivered neither freedom nor a high standard of living to its subjects.
Angered and alarmed by Reagan's rejection of their fundamental beliefs, values, and interests, liberal whites responded by aligning more strongly with the Democratic Party. In 1976, 51 percent of liberal white voters were Democrats, 38 percent were independents, and 11 percent were Republicans. By 1988, 65 percent of white liberals were Democrats, a percentage that rose to 68 percent in 2004 (see "Liberals: Democratic Consolidation" in figure 1.3). As more liberal whites became Democrats, and as minority voters -- African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and others -- became more prominent within the party, the liberal wing of the national Democratic Party was greatly strengthened at the expense of its conservative wing.
Simply realigning white conservatives was not sufficient to make the Republicans truly competitive with the Democrats. Nationally, Republican leaders confronted a size problem. Their potentially most loyal supporters made up only about one-third of America's white voters. If the Republicans continued to lose moderate whites by large margins, and if they lost liberal whites and racial/ethnic minorities by even wider margins, even the most solid bloc of white conservatives could not possibly overcome Democrats' strength in the rest of the electorate.
Hence enlarging the Republican Party in the national electorate also depended upon the success of a second strategic imperative: neutralizing the customary Democratic advantage among moderates, the nation's largest group of white voters. In 1976 Democrats led Republicans 40 percent to 23 percent among these voters. Moderate whites, as figure 1.3 shows, displayed a sizable Democratic advantage until 1984, when Reagan's decisive reelection victory helped neutralize the long-standing Democratic advantage. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Democratic advantage dropped to a single point, 35 percent to 34 percent. No longer did America's white moderate voters provide a reliable surplus of votes for Democratic candidates.
Moderation, unlike conservatism or liberalism, is not a fighting faith. White moderates do not ordinarily have polarized views of the parties and candidates. In general they are liberal on some issues, conservative on others, and without clear tendencies on many other issues. Because their policy preferences are so diverse, it is difficult for either a distinctly liberal Democratic Party or a distinctly conservative Republican Party to attract majority identification from white moderates. Neither Bill Clinton's "New Democrat" policies nor George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" brought majorities of moderates into their respective parties. Clear and unmistakable performance failure by one of the parties -- as happened to the Republicans during the Great Depression -- may be necessary before majorities of white moderates identify with a particular party. One party would have to be perceived as culturally unacceptable, politically useless, or some of both.
Thus heightened ideological divisions between Republican and Democratic voters increasingly shape the partisan policy battles among American politicians. Power struggles between conservative Republican and liberal Democratic elected politicians in the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives are based upon the rapidly changing ideological composition of voters who make up the Democratic and Republican parties and nominate their respective parties' candidates.
Neither of the ideological orientations commonly associated with party elites attracts anything close to majority support among all white voters. In 2004 self-identified moderates (45 percent) far outnumbered conservatives (34 percent) and liberals (21 percent). Liberal Democrats cannot win by appealing primarily to liberals, nor can conservative Republicans prevail by exclusively targeting conservatives. Presidential candidates therefore must unify their core ideological bases but also attract millions of moderate voters.
Republican gains and Democratic losses among the nation's huge group of white moderate voters have powerfully reshaped the party balance. These ideological trends have, of course, affected the relative strength of the liberal and conservative wings within each of the parties. As Democratic primary voters have become more liberal and less conservative, liberal candidates have thrived. At the same time, as Republican primary voters have become more conservative and less moderate, conservatives have more often been winners.
This partisan sorting out of white voters according to their ideology has profoundly affected the two national parties. The net effect of these trends has been to strengthen the association in the white electorate between voters' ideologies and their partisan identifications. Each party has become more ideologically homogeneous and more distinct from the other. The Republican Party has become more conservative; the Democratic Party has become more liberal.
Republican efforts to attract white support have succeeded far more with men than women. In the 1950s, Democrats led Republicans in both groups, and white men were even more Democratic and less Republican than white women. Since the early 1980s, the Democratic advantage has collapsed dramatically among white men and more subtly among white women.
White men, the driving force in the Republican surge, have clearly realigned their partisanship. Beginning in the Reagan-Mondale contest of 1984, and persisting in every subsequent presidential election, more white men have labeled themselves Republicans than Democrats. In 2004 Republicans led Democrats among white men by 20 points, 47 percent to 27 percent. White women, by contrast, displayed a different pattern of partisan change. Democratic strength has eroded, but a sustained Republican advantage has not emerged. In 2004, however, a substantial Republican lead appeared, 43 percent to 35 percent, among white women.
The greater Republican strength among white men than white women rests upon the different ideological composition of the groups. There are more conservatives and fewer liberals among white men than among white women. In the 2004 exit poll moderates were similar in number among men and women (44 percent and 45 percent, respectively). The important gender differences concerned the relative numbers of conservatives and liberals. Conservatives swamped liberals 40 percent to 16 percent among white men. While there were also more conservatives (33 percent) than liberals (22 percent) among white women, the ratio of conservatives to liberals was far less pronounced.
White American voters continue to divide their partisanship along religious lines, although modern cleavages differ from those of the past in several respects. Nationally, most white voters are Christians (94 percent in the 1950s, 82 percent in 2004). Because whites made up virtually all of the electorate in 1952, white Christians were more than nine-tenths of all American voters. By 2004 white Christians had become a much smaller majority (63 percent) of American voters due to the smaller percentages of whites among all voters and to smaller percentages of Christians among all white voters.
Enormous changes have occurred in the size of the nation's major religious groups. In the 1950s Protestants made up 70 percent of the nation's white voters, followed distantly by Catholics (24 percent) and even more distantly by whites who were not Christians (6 percent). By 2004 the religious affiliations of white voters were considerably more diverse. The relative size of white Protestants declined to 55 percent of the white electorate. Catholics increased slightly, to 27 percent of white voters. The non-Christian whites -- Jews, adherents of religions other than Christianity and Judaism, and those with no religious affiliation -- tripled in size, to 18 percent of all white voters.
To track the changing political dynamics of America's religious traditions, we divide white voters into four groups: Protestants, Catholic men, Catholic women, and non-Christians. Figure 1.4 shows the partisanship of these groups by decades from the 1950s through the early 2000s. America's white Protestants have seldom behaved as a cohesive partisan bloc. From the 1950s through the 1970s, they were evenly split in partisanship. Commencing in the 1980s, however, white Protestants moved decisively toward the Republican Party. Republican ascendancy among white Protestants represents a tremendous departure from the old national pattern.
Ideology is the central explanation of the white Protestants' political transformation. White Protestants have the highest ratio of conservatives to liberals of any voting group in the nation. In 2004, for example, 45 percent were conservatives, and 13 percent were liberals. Reagan's presidency was the obvious turning point for white Protestants. His emphasis on conservative themes concerning national security, taxation, cultural, racial, and religious issues resonated with many of the values, beliefs, and experiences of Protestant whites throughout the nation. By the 2002 and 2004 elections, for the first time in the history of the United States, majorities of white Protestants -- men and women -- were Republicans.
The changing partisanship of white Catholic voters has been equally important in reducing Democratic strength and enhancing Republican competitiveness. Political scientist William B. Prendergast has summed up this major development as "The Passing of the Democratic Monolith." Historically many Catholics viewed the Republican Party as the political instrument of Protestants. As such, they had little interest in the Republicans. In the 1950s and 1960s, most white Catholics were Democrats, and through the 1970s, barely one-fifth of them were Republicans. Not until the Reagan years did white Catholics display a sharp upward movement toward the Republicans. According to Prendergast, "In the 1980s a notable realignment of Catholic voters took place. The proportion of Catholics of Democratic affiliation and voting habits shrank; the ranks of Catholic Republicans and Independents increased; and the activist cadres in the Republican Party were diversified by an infusion of Catholics in party and public office." By the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were slightly more Republicans than Democrats among white Catholic voters -- an astonishing shift within the nation's second largest religious group.
Gender impacts partisan trends for white Catholics (see figure 1.4). A Republican realignment has occurred among white Catholic men. During the past half century, this group shifted from a Democratic majority to a Republican plurality. The Democratic advantage narrowed markedly during Reagan's presidency, and by the 1990s, a clear Republican lead had emerged. These gains have continued in the twenty-first century. In 2004, 46 percent of white male Catholic voters were Republicans, while only 27 percent remained Democrats.
White Catholic women, on the other hand, display a pattern of partisan dealignment. This is a process of partisan change in which a party's traditional majority or plurality advantage collapses without a rival party emerging with a new majority or plurality lead. Among white Catholic women, huge Democratic leads of the 1950s and 1960s have narrowed to much smaller Democratic advantages.
Based on the average of the 2002 and 2004 elections, Democrats still held a small lead. In the 2004 presidential election, however, the Democratic lead fell to two points, 40 percent to 38 percent.
Catholic women have been harder to realign than Catholic men because of their different ideological perspectives. In 2004, 53 percent of Catholic women were moderates, only 27 percent were conservatives, and 19 percent were liberals. While 50 percent of all Catholic men were moderates, 36 percent were conservatives, and 14 percent were liberals. Realigning white Catholic women would require the GOP to attract far more moderates. Yet even without a Republican realignment among white Catholic women, the old pro-Democratic patterns in partisanship have been transformed.
Non-Christian white voters have always been far more Democratic than Republican (see figure 1.4). Their substantial impact on national politics derives from their reliable Democratic unity combined with their growing size. Three groups comprise the non-Christian whites. Jews, 3 percent of the white electorate in 2004, are by far the nation's most Democratic and most liberal group of white voters. Among Jewish voters, there were four times as many Democrats as Republicans (63 percent to 15 percent) and almost four times as many liberals as conservatives (45 percent to 12 percent). No other group of white voters provides such strong partisan and ideological support for the Democratic Party.
Smaller Democratic advantages characterize the other two groups of non-Christian whites. White voters who belong to a religion other than Christianity or Judaism were 5 percent of the white electorate in 2004. They also identify far more as Democrats than as Republicans (42 percent to 25 percent). The Democratic advantage is rooted in the more than two-to-one liberal-to-conservative makeup of the group, as well as a Democratic advantage among moderates.
Voters who reported no religious affiliation accounted for one-tenth of the white electorate in 2004. Democrats outnumbered Republicans among these voters by nearly 2 to 1, 43 percent to 23 percent. While moderates are a plurality (44 percent) of the group, liberals overwhelm conservatives, 40 percent to 16 percent. All in all, the stability of Democratic support among non-Christian whites over recent decades stands in distinct contrast to all other white religious groups.
Taken together, the net impact of these changes in the white electorate has been quite substantial. The Republican Party has become far more conservative and the Democratic Party far more liberal than in the past. The conservative wing of the national Democratic Party has virtually disappeared, as has the liberal wing of the Republican Party. A more liberal Democratic Party and a much more conservative Republican Party are unlikely to attract majority support from the many voters who do not think of themselves as either liberals or conservatives.
Copyright © 2007 by Earl Black and Merle Black
Meet the Author
Earl Black is a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston. His brother, Merle Black, is a professor of politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta. They are also the authors of The Rise of Southern Republicans, The Vital South, and Politics and Society in the South.
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