Was 2008 a realigning election?

One well-known political science professor looks at the demographics from last fall and concludes the Democrats are likely to hold power for a while.

Published April 20, 2009 11:20PM (EDT)

When University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato speaks about politics, people listen. And by "people" I mean most every political reporter in the country, as Sabato has earned the distinction -- by now, it's not really a good thing for him -- of being called "probably the most quoted college professor in the land." And given the dramatic predictions in his latest book, "The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House," even more people are going to be listening to Sabato as he talks about an election that he believes marks a major shift in U.S. politics.

“The big idea of this book is that 2008 looks to be a realigning election — a very rare event in American history," Sabato told Politico's Mike Allen. "The previous three were 1896, 1932, and 1980. Translation: The Democratic majority is going to last for a while."

To support his contention, Sabato pointed out three demographic trends, according to Allen:

  • The young broke more than 2-1 Democratic, and it was an intense preference unlikely to fade quickly. As this group ages and replaces older voters, Democrats will benefit even more since this group’s turnout will go up.
  • The proportion of minority voters (black, Hispanic, and Asian) shot up and is likely to climb consistently every four years (mainly because of Hispanics). Democrats get about three-quarters of the votes of minorities, taken as a collective group.
  • Americans with post-graduate educations have begun to move firmly to the Democrats, not just because of Bush and the economy but also because of the GOP’s conservative stance on social issues (abortion, gay rights, etc.)

I think it's probably still a little early for big, sweeping pronouncements about 2008, if only because the 2010 midterm elections will be a good sign of the durability of what we witnessed last fall. But in general, all of this is pretty convincing.

I'm especially interested in the argument about Hispanics and how powerful that demographic group will be for Democrats, as regular readers of this blog will know, but the data about young voters is pretty compelling too. They can probably be expected to shift somewhat rightward as they age, but -- as Sabato himself notes -- their comparatively social liberal views will still remain a problem for the GOP, unless the party moves towards the center on issues like same-sex marriage.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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