Realignment Theory:

Four categories of elections are generated by realignment theory: realigning, maintaining, deviating, and reinstating. According to realignment theory, party politics periodically undergo major shifts in the partisan identification of the electorate. Such shifts are referred to as realignments. Realignments are signaled by a realigning election which can be also called a critical election. As the result of a critical election, a significant number of voters change their partisan identification and their voting behavior. One of the two major parties will enjoy either a shift that strengthens its majority among the electorate or a shift that carries the minority party into majority party status. The majority party will take control of the presidency and with the support of the majority of voters will tend to win presidential elections. Realigning elections occur under the following seven conditions:

  • a severe crisis on the order of the Great Depression;
  • new policy alternatives aimed at solving the crisis are proposed;
  • the voters perceive divergence between the parties on issues associated with the crisis;
  • the electorate is mobilized and a signigicantly higher than usual number of voters turnout;
  • legislatures and executives at the national and state level are unified under the control of the party with the greatest votes;
  • the winning party enacts major policy changes;
  • the voters perceive the policy changes to be successful in dealing with the crisis;
  • new symbols of government emerge as a result of the new expectations.
    The classic example of a realigning election is the 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Great Depression involved the entire nation and widespread suffering occurred. The Democrats proposed abandoning the philosophy of laissez-faire in favor of more government intervention in the economy to help the economy and individuals; they called it a New Deal. Voter turnout in 1932 was significantly higher than in recent presidential elections. The voter turnout in 1924 had been only 48.8 percent of the eligible voters. As a result of the 1932 presidential elections, the Democratic party gained control of the presidency and both houses of Congress as well as a large number of the state governments. With its large majorities in both the House and the Senate, the Democratic party under the leadership of President Roosevelt passed many bills authorizing major policy changes. Large parts of the public came to view the New Deal and its associated programs as the solution to the Great Depression. Rather than viewing the national government as a distant authority, the public came to believe that the national government had offered a new deal, in a sense, a helping hand.

    Maintaining elections are presidential elections in which the majority party continues its control of the presidency. The voters have tended to vote according to their party identification and have not been cross-pressured by short term variables.

    Deviating elections are presidential elections in which a portion of the majority party voters cross party lines due to the influence of short term variables and swing the outcome of the election in favor of the minority party candidate.

    Reinstating elections involve those elections in which the majority party voters who crossed party lines in the previous election (necessarily a deviating election) return to the party fold and vote the majority party candidate into office. Thus the majority party is reinstated into control of the presidency.