Saturday, October 09, 2021

The Democrats Don't Appear Doomed, Unless Losing Half the Time Means Doom

Since Ronald Reagan's first victory in 1980, the United States has held 11 presidential elections and 10 congressional midterms. In total, over those 21 federal contests:

• Republicans have won the presidency 6 times and Democrats 5 times.

• Democrats have won a majority in the House of Representatives 11 times and Republicans 10 times.

• Republicans have won a majority in the Senate 11 times and Democrats 10 times. (This counts the post-2000 Senate as having a Democratic majority, though Republicans controlled it for several months in early 2001.)

• Democrats have achieved unified control of the presidency and Congress after 3 elections: 1992, 2008, and 2020. Republicans have also achieved unified control after 3 elections: 2002, 2004, and 2016 (plus those few months in 2001). The remaining 15 elections produced divided party government in one permutation or another.

These numbers form a picture of consistent, and fairly remarkable, long-term parity between the parties, reinforced by the narrow margins by which most recent presidential and congressional elections have been decided at the national level. The record of the past 40 years suggests that Democrats and Republicans can each expect to achieve unified control of the presidency and Congress in about one out of every seven elections, most likely holding a cross-branch governing majority for just two years at a stretch before the next election re-establishes the condition of divided government—which has been the norm of our age.

This might seem to be a boringly self-evident set of observations. And yet, those of us who have actually spent most of this period experiencing each election in sequence while immersed in associated debates and media coverage have been subjected to a constant series of arguments, theories, and analyses that claim the existence or imminent appearance of an enduring advantage for one party or the other. Promoting hypotheses of "electoral locks" over particular institutions and repeatedly proclaiming nascent realignments or even revolutions, some of the most distinguished political analysts of the era have repeatedly been tempted to assume that the short-term trends of the immediate past will extend into the long-term future. All the while, actual electoral outcomes have continue to rapidly and repetitively bounce back and forth between Democratic and Republican victories at equal rates over decades of history, even while the internal coalitions, policies, strategies, messages, and candidates of both parties have undergone substantial change.

On Friday, the New York Times published a column by liberal journalist Ezra Klein profiling the Democratic political strategist and data analyst David Shor. Shor has attracted a reputation as something of a renegade, though I'd guess that many of his conclusions are quietly shared by a substantial proportion of professional consultants in both parties. His contrarian image stems more from his willingness to publicly argue in front of social and online media's younger, well-educated, ideologically progressive audience that the left-wing cultural opinions now ascendant within that audience are likely to weaken Democratic mass appeal among working-class voters if they become popularly associated with the party and its candidates.

We are, of course, currently in what history tells us is a rare and temporary period of unified Democratic rule, likely to end as soon as 2022 given the narrow margins of control in Congress and the losses normally suffered by the president's party in midterm elections. But Klein and Shor are neither congratulating Democrats for achieving an uncommon success nor cheering on the leftward policy shifts that the victories of last November have made possible for their side. Instead, they are looking into the future with terror.

Invoking Shor's analysis, Klein's column repeatedly employs apocalyptic phrases to describe the Democrats' hypothetical fortunes in upcoming elections: "truly frightening," "without any hope," "sleepwalking into catastrophe," "on the edge of an electoral abyss." A "deeply pessimistic" view of the Democrats' position is not unique to Shor, Klein writes, but is widely shared among analysts (including, presumably, himself).

Given the urgency of such language, one might expect Klein and Shor to be forecasting the imminent end of our long era of partisan parity, to be succeeded by a new phase of American politics marked by unobstructed Republican rule. But they don't explicitly argue that Republicans will win national elections at a higher rate in the future than they have in the past, and they certainly don't claim to envision a durable GOP governing majority. Though the results of the statistical model Shor has built to predict every election from now until 2032 are not revealed in detail (ambition, at least, is not in short supply here), the likelihood of Democrats losing unified control next year and facing challenges in winning it back quickly thereafter appears to be a sufficiently dire prospect to provoke dramatic expressions of anticipatory lamentation—even if such an outcome is, by historical standards, tediously unexceptional.

Many of the specific points made by Klein and Shor are sound and even persuasive. The current geographic distribution of the parties' mass coalitions gives the Republicans a structural head start in winning a majority in the electoral college and especially the Senate, though (as the results of 2020 demonstrated) this advantage falls well short of guaranteed perpetual victory. But if lacking unified federal control is plunging into an "abyss," then the Democratic Party has been sunk in that abyss for all but three two-year periods since 1980. Defining the failure to achieve a cross-branch governing majority as a "catastrophe" would suggest that Democrats—and Republicans too, for that matter—are in an electorally catastrophic state 86 percent of the time.

I suspect that's not what Klein really means. Most likely, he simply views the post-Trump Republican Party as sufficiently dangerous to the values he prizes that any impending Republican victory, even just to restore divided government and block the Democrats' legislative progress, represents disaster. Thus, Democratic leaders and their supporters cannot afford to appreciate the rare achievement of their recent electoral success or the policy changes that flow from them, and certainly have no right to adopt a philosophical detachment about the inevitability of frequent alternations of power in an age of evenly-matched national parties. There's a five-alarm fire in the engine room of American democracy, he implies, and the Republicans are pouring fuel on it. Any setback for the Democratic side is ruinous.

Regardless of the validity of that argument, it engages questions that are distinct from merely estimating each party's probability of victory in upcoming electoral contests. And if the nation is indeed in such peril, it doesn't seem realistic to expect Democratic politicians and operatives to solve the problem by adopting a sufficiently powerful set of policies and messages to shut the Republicans out of power until they change their ways, whenever that might be. An age marked by persistently close elections means that the outcome in this or that specific contest can indeed hang on the calculated choices of candidates and campaigns, and Shor has a number of justifiable ideas about which strategies will maximize Democrats' chances of victory. But partisan parity also means that both sides are going to lose sometimes, no matter what they do. If that's catastrophic, than catastrophe is inevitable.

Given the disappointing record of previous attempts to identify nascent partisan trends in one direction or the other, I admit to holding a strong default assumption that this parity will continue until the evidence really starts to build over multiple elections that American politics has entered a different era. There are simply too many moving parts in the parties' coalitions and too many contingent factors influencing electoral outcomes to gain much confidence in foreseeing future developments, and even smart arguments made by smart people drawing on smart data sources can quickly fall apart when the political world changes. If predictions must be made, the safest bet remains that each party will narrowly win roughly half the time, and that divided government will continue to be more frequent than instances of single-party rule. For now, I leave to the judgment of others the question of whether that likely pattern indicates impending doom—for either party, or for the country itself.