One of the more interesting things about recent political history is the fact that it was only five years ago that various pundits and Democratic strategists were worrying about a permanent Democratic minority. After the 2004 election, Democrats were almost completely boxed in by a conservative Republican Party, and a fair number of Democratic commentators were convinced that liberals were mostly ineffective in national politics, and that the road to political relevance went through the “center” (read conservative) of American politics. Of course, they were completely wrong; Barack Obama is the most liberal president in a generation, and Congress is controlled by a fairly liberal Democratic majority.
The lesson here is fairly straightforward: there are no guarantees in politics, and the public mood can change rapidly within a few short years. Matt Yglesias takes this and smartly argues that the current period of Republican weakness might simply be a short-term condition which will correct itself through the natural ebb and flow of partisan politics; there’s every reason to think that by 2016, the GOP will be in a position to win a national election.
That said, I think that there’s enough evidence available to make the case that the GOP is on the path to long-term electoral irrelevance, barring some dramatic shift within the party. Last year, the Hoover Institution’s David Brady, Douglas Rivers and Laurel Harbridge published a really interesting paper arguing that if the GOP holds steady on its current path, and continues to enforce ideological purity at the cost of electoral gain, then there’s a fair chance that the party’s refusal to moderate on cultural issues will trigger a realignment and solidify the Democratic Party’s current position as the dominant political coalition. They draw their conclusion from data taken from the 2004 and 2008 election seasons showing a real and substantive shift in party affiliation/preference towards the Democratic Party. Here are some of their results:
Here is their explanation:
Very few Republicans actually become Democrats. Only 1.2 percent of the strong Republicans and 8.0 percent of the weak Republicans from 2004 say they are Democrats or lean Democratic in 2008. Instead, the decline of Republican strength occurs when strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans become independents, and independents lean more Democratic or even becoming Democrats. […]
Some more detail on the nature and size of the Democratic shift is shown in Table 1, which shows how respondents in each of the seven party-identification categories moved between 2004 and 2008. For example, among pure independents (i.e., independents who did not lean toward either party), 34.6 percent were stable and gave the same answer in 2008 as 2004. Of the remainder, 37.5 percent moved in the Democratic direction (either identifying as weak or strong Democrats or as leaning toward the Democrats) while 27.9 percent moved in the Republican direction, for a net gain of 9.6 percent for the Democrats. Overall, we see a shift of 6.0 percent toward the Democrats, consistent with the shifts seen in media polling.
Moreover, it’s useful to point out that the situation of Republicans today is significantly different than Democrats in 2004; the number of Americans identifying as either Democrats or Republicans was fairly even, and the basic Democratic platform wasn’t unpopular. If anything, liberals were faced with a messaging problem more so than anything else: the successes of the last two years were in part due to improved “brand marketing” on part of liberals (it’s easier for the median Virginian voter to become a Democrat when a “Democrat” is Jim Webb). Conservatives are in a far worse position. American’s are angry with Republicans, yes, but they are also deeply dissatisfied with Republican policies, and their current intransigent opposition isn’t really helping. Indeed, it’s simply the case that the Republican Party’s path to renewed relevance will rely mostly on a new approach to governing and not – as Matt Zeitlin notes – a new approach to messaging.
But again, the most important difference between the Democratic Party circa 2004 and the Republican Party circa 2009 is simply that in 2004, the Democratic Party wasn’t hemorraging support and wasn’t facing a massively popular president. Unless the Republican Party makes fundamental changes to its policy platform, and adopts a stance which (for the moment at least) is less adversarial and more cooperative, then there is a fair chance that the GOP will simply bleed out, leaving it a hollow shell of its former self (and possibly opening up the space for another center-right party).