A “realigning” or “critical” election requires three things. First, the underlying electoral coalitions of the respective parties shift significantly. Secondly, and relatedly, new or previously submerged issues rise to define the parties. Finally, both these changes remain relevant beyond the signature election. That is, the newly constituted coalitions and issues remain stable, continuing to define and identify the parties into the indefinite future.
The 2016 presidential election meets the first and second criteria. The question of 2016 is whether the election represents a deviation from the current party system or whether the 2016 changes will last beyond President Trump (including a second term if he is reelected).
The 2016 election heralded a notable change in the underlying electoral coalitions. Heightened support for Donald Trump among the blue-collar working class whites—traditionally a Democratic constituency—and heightened support for Hillary Clinton among college-educated suburbanites, particularly white women.
Secondly, while illegal immigration existed as an issue prior to 2016, Donald Trump centered his campaign on it as the signature issue. So, too, more broadly, a foreign policy focused more directly on advancing immediate national interests, as opposed to seeking to advance more diffuse or contestable purposes like democracy building. Support and attention for both of these issues existed previously in the Republican Party, but none received the heightened focus Donald Trump provided to them in winning the nomination.
Further, while Hillary Clinton represented the mainest-of-the-Democratic-arty mainstream, Bernie Sanders’ insurgency at least hinted at the popularity of issues advocating increased economic redistribution and government programs. These particularly focused on economic inequality, health care and education. While primary losers do not define critical elections, as I argue below, this aspect of the Democratic coalition can very well influence the stability of the 2016 electoral coalition going forward.
It is the question of the stability of the 2016 electoral coalition and issues going forward that is the main challenge to whether 2016 represented a realigning election.
The answer revolves around the resolution of the issue of Trump versus Trumpism.
President Trump certainly marked the Republican Party with his imprint in 2016. Yet even if President Trump wins reelection, can a Trumpist agenda survive without Trump?
The hard center of Trump’s Republican constituency predated Trump’s candidacy. Think here of Tea Party Republicans, Pat Buchanan’s several runs for the Republican nomination, or Ross Perot’s independent run for the presidency, which doomed the first President Bush to a single term as president. Yet none could capitalize on these and similar issues to lead to a broad and sustained electoral victory.
The vast bulk of the Republican Party dutifully fell in line in support of Trump as the Republican nominee. Nonetheless, it is unclear that Trump’s core supporters have expanded influence to takeover the Republican Party as, say, Reagan conservatives did during and after his successful presidential runs. The handful of “Never Trump”-ers who left the GOP did not lead multitudes with them. This does not mean those who remained are now converted Trumpists.
Further, there remains a question about the stability of the 2016 electoral coalitions, distinctive as they were.
Suburban support for Clinton almost surely does not herald a permanent turn from the Republicans. These are risk-averse voters. Clinton’s mainstreamism attracted these voters from Trump. These risk-averse voters who desire mainly cling to what they have already. One whiff of real “Democratic socialism” will quickly scare these voters back into the Republican fold, even with Donald Trump on the ticket. Counting on the Clinton coalition to remain intact no matter the Democratic nominee would be a huge miscalculation for the Democrats—one many Democrats already seem to have made.
Further, while continued economic prosperity under Trump augurs for retaining a good deal of his working class support, a year and a half is a long time to sustain an economic boom that is already long in the tooth.
More pointed is the issue of manifest policy progress on the issue of illegal immigration. Can Trump maintain his outsized support among the white working classes without enactment of a signature policy on immigration? But even if not, would these voters have anywhere else to go than Trump? Perhaps Democratic economic populism might attract some back, but it is unclear many activists in the Democratic Party want them back even if they wanted to return.
So did the 2016 campaign realign the parties? While Trump certainly bent the pre-existing party system, he did not break it. When he is no longer personally on the ticket, my guess is the pre-existing party system will snap back into place with issues and coalitions little altered.