When you think of the great political coalitions of the past that were dominant for long stretches of time, you’d probably include the Democratic “New Deal” coalition, the Republican “Gilded Age” majority, and maybe the antebellum Democratic and post–Civil War Republican winning streaks. More recently, you might consider the Republican-dominated period from Nixon to Poppy Bush with its suggestion of a GOP “electoral college lock” pretty notable.
But as Ron Brownstein notes today, the contemporary Democratic Party is on the brink of exceeding them all by one key measurement. If Hillary Clinton wins this year, the Donkey Party will have won the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections.
There are some qualifications that must be attached to this accomplishment, of course. Most obvious, the Democratic popular-vote victory in 2000 did not lead to a Gore administration; Democrats suffered the same fate after winning the popular vote in 1876 and 1888. In three of the five most recent victories, the Democratic candidate did not win more than 50 percent of the popular vote (and the odds are pretty good that even with a comfortable decision Hillary Clinton will be a plurality winner as well). And most significant, Democratic success at the presidential level has not been accompanied by consistently strong performances down ballot, especially in midterms, where Republican landslides during Democratic presidencies (1994, 2010, 2014) are becoming pretty common.
Still, something is going on that makes the presidential-popular-vote winning streak possible, particularly when you add in the Democratic near-miss in 2004 and contrast this era with the 1980s and its three straight Republican wins by large margins. Brownstein points to a common feature of all dominant presidential coalitions: the close alignment of a party with “growing groups in the electorate.” For today’s Democrats, that means “minorities, Millennials, and whites who are college-educated, secular, or single (especially women).”
Today’s Republicans, of course, by nominating Donald Trump, have gambled everything on winning a supersize and super-energized share of the declining groups in the electorate: white folks, old folks, non-college-educated folks, self-consciously religious folks, and married folks (especially men). If that strategy fails, as appears likely at the moment, then the GOP will have the dual problem of a continuing and intensified misalignment with prevailing demographic trends, and a disappointed and angry old-white-male “base” that may be even more radicalized by the election of the first woman president following the first African-American president. It’s not a scenario that will lend itself to a quick recovery, which means the Democratic winning streak could grow even longer.
One must add, of course, that objective conditions in the country could change almost everything. Not that very long ago, a guy named Karl Rove thought he had figured out a way to build an enduring Republican majority via careful base-tending and highly targeted appeals to Latinos, seniors, and married white women. That coalition was already falling apart by 2006 — partly because “the base” hated the “outreach” agenda — but a failed war and then an economic collapse hastened the development significantly. A long presidential winning streak means the winning party gradually becomes identified with the status quo, for better or for worse. Adverse conditions at home or abroad combined with incumbent fatigue could present Republicans with a fresh opportunity in 2020, a big year generally because it will dictate congressional and state legislative redistricting opportunities. But first, of course, the GOP must awaken from its fever dreams of bringing back the past without adjusting to the present and future.