Parties struggle with shifting coalitions

Parties struggle with shifting coalitions
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The wealthy, well-educated voters of Orange County, Calif., have been Republicans for generations. But Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE’s divisive rhetoric was too much for many of those who pulled the lever for Mitt Romney or John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' Democrats seek to counter GOP attacks on gas prices Biden nominates Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey MORE, and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Shontel Brown gaining ground against Nina Turner in Ohio: poll Biden hits trail for McAuliffe in test of his political brand MORE became the first Democrat to win the county in decades.

The working-class residents of Swift County, Minn., have been reliably Democratic votes since the New Deal. But Trump’s promise to shake up a broken system, and Clinton’s ties to a deeply unpopular status quo, drove them into Republican hands.


Across the nation, a presidential contest between the two least-popular nominees in modern American history reshuffled political coalitions on both sides of the aisle. Hundreds of thousands of voters who backed Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEmergency infrastructure needed to keep Americans safe: Public media Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Congress is to blame for the latest ruling on DACA MORE chose Trump, and hundreds of thousands who sided with Romney migrated to Clinton.

Now, both major political parties are in a state of deep disrepair, burdened by a mistrusting electorate motivated more by fear than ambition and searching for a viable path ahead.

Experts in both parties say each side must rebuild the coalitions they will need to win future elections — but those rebuilding missions have been slow to take shape.

“The short-term future of the two party coalitions is that they are becoming smaller, more ideologically and demographically consistent within themselves, and inward-focused rather than outward-focused,” said Tim Saler, a Republican demographic and data analytics expert.

This is the 20th story in The Hill’s Changing America series, in which we investigate the economic and demographic trends shaping American politics. Even as those trends push some voters to the right and others to the left, they have conspired to fracture the partisan coalitions that have dominated American politics for half a century.

Both coalitions were ripe for dismantling as discontent with the political status quo mounted. Fewer Americans now align with one of the two major political parties, and more call themselves independent, than ever before.

At the same time, those who identify with one party are more likely to see the other side as a cause for fear or alarm. The Pew Research Center has found that about 6 in 10 Republicans and Democrats view the other party with anxiety and trepidation.

“People don’t necessarily like their party more. They sure as heck fear the other party,” said Rob Griffin, a demographer at the Center for American Progress and George Washington University. “Partisanship is high, but the parties are weak.”

The antipathy for the other party is increasingly apparent in geographic voting patterns. As recently as 1992, just three counties gave one presidential contender more than 80 percent of the vote. When George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, 81 counties gave him or Democrat Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreKamala Harris's unprecedented challenge Gore warns of 'yawning gap' between long-term climate goals and near-term action plans Trump-allied GOP chairs turn on fellow Republicans MORE more than 80 percent. In 2016, the number of hyperpartisan counties ballooned to 388.

And the antipathy for the two-party system as a whole is evident, too, in the last two winning presidents. Both Obama and Trump cast themselves as atypical politicians, running to change the political system itself. To a lesser extent, so did Bush and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Biden hits new low in Gallup poll Biden hits trail for McAuliffe in test of his political brand MORE, both Washington outsiders elected to shake up the status quo.

But the two parties have realigned at different speeds: Democrats have experienced a slow evolution, while Republicans undertook a speedy transition hastened by an unorthodox presidential nominee in 2016.

For Democrats, who relied on labor voters to hold states in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest, the slow bleed of white working-class voters away from their traditional political home began as early as the 1960s. The party has made up those votes by relying on younger voters and minorities, who turned out en masse to elect Obama in 2008 and 2012.

But the party has been unable to generate the same kind of turnout when Obama is not on the ballot. Democrats suffered deep losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, and again in 2016, when Obama faced term limits. That has some party strategists worried that persistent turnout trouble will plague them over the long run.

“For young people who are in particular predisposed to be more Democratic, their hatred of both parties is significant, and it appears likely to lead to greater disengagement from politics,” said Matt Canter, a Democratic pollster.

Republicans have experienced what evolutionary biologists might call punctuated equilibrium, a rapid evolution caused by an environmental crisis. In this case, Trump — who bucked party orthodoxy on everything including international trade, health care and even social issues — was the crisis that forced the evolution.

“The Republican Party is now at a point where it includes economic liberals who are socially conservative,” said Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the New America Foundation.

Both Republicans and Democrats are struggling to understand the motivations of those who split their tickets between Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, and those who chose Romney before picking Hillary Clinton. Unlocking the secret to those voters, each side thinks, will be the key to fashioning a new coalition.

Republicans see the advantage in coalescing the working-class voters in Middle America who long voted Democratic, wooed in part by Trump’s appeal to populist protectionism rather than corporate America’s free trade.

“We too often have talked about making the economy better and where the Dow Jones was, and now we’re talking about making things in this country,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist. “Our coalition has been becoming more blue collar and more industrial over time.”

Todd said he sees the Romney-Clinton voters as aberrations, short-term defectors likely to return to the GOP fold.

“These voters are suburban voters with college degrees, two imported cars in the driveway, two incomes. They’re not up for criticizing police officers. They are absolutely for a strong national defense and killing terrorists,” Todd said. “The Democratic Party is drifting further away from them on issues that matter to them.”

But not all Republicans agree, and some fear voters with higher incomes and higher levels of education are showing long-term signs of shifting toward Democrats.

“Look at where you see the most significant Romney-Clinton voter concentration. These communities tended to contain voters who earn a higher income, have more educational attainment, live in suburbs. These are the tell-tale signs of a more frequent, consistent voter,” Saler said. “A Romney-Clinton voter looks a lot more like somebody that we have counted on to support Republicans in midterm elections for quite some time.”

“The fear, then, is that the things that a Romney-Clinton voter does not like about the Republican president then become attached to the entire party in the voter’s eyes, and now that voter becomes far more inclined to support a Democrat candidate in a congressional election,” he said. “As more likely voters in the first place, if they begin casting ballots for Democrats in congressional races, not just in a one-off presidential contest for the ages, then it’s bad news for us long-term if we have to offset them with less consistent, swingier voters.”

Democrats are buoyed by the twin growth of a younger, more liberal generation and minority populations who favor them in overwhelming numbers. Already, the millennial generation represents the largest generation in the American workforce, if not yet the electorate. And while some in the Republican Party have warned of the importance of reaching out to minorities, Trump has shown no interest in doing so.

“The GOP finds itself led by a president who seems determined to shrink his base and his party’s,” said Paul Taylor, a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center and the author of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown.”

But, Taylor said, the growth of the Democratic-friendly elements of the electorate will not happen overnight.

“Long term, the demographics are favorable for the Democrats. But we’re on a slow walk to the long run,” he said.

Together, the two parties are consolidating their coalitions by exploiting fears of the other side, without reaching beyond the narrow confines of their own audiences. Negative advertising is on the rise — Clinton’s 2016 campaign ran a record number of negative ads for a presidential campaign.

“Both parties are, in essence, zombie parties. Their platforms and rhetoric haven’t changed in a while,” Drutman said. “Hyperpartisanship becomes more important when the party coalitions are weaker.”