American political scientists have often analyzed the two major U.S. parties according to three internal dimensions: the party as an organization, the party in government, and the party in the electorate. The study of political realignments, or realigning elections, is concerned with a rare, significant, long-term change in the voting behavior and party identification of the electorate. Such a change also affects the party as an organization (e.g., the chairmanship, activities, finances, and apparatus of the Democratic National Committee [DNC] or Republican National Committee [RNC]) and the party in government (e.g., partisan control of the presidency and Congress and the policy agenda identified with a party through its national platforms and legislative behavior).
In a 1955 journal article on critical elections and a 1959 article on secular realignment, political scientist V. O. Key, Jr., defined a critical election as "a type of election in which there occurs a sharp and durable electoral realignment between parties" (Key 1955, p. 3). In adopting the term "secular realignment" in his 1959 article, Key characterized a critical or realigning election as a "secular shift in party attachment," that is, "a movement of the members of a population category from party to party that extends over several presidential elections and appears to be independent of the peculiar factors influencing the vote at individual elections" (Key 1959, p. 199).
Since Key's articles were published, political scientists and historians have disagreed about several aspects of realignment, but there is scholarly consensus that enduring changes occurred in U.S. voting behavior and party identification from 1928 to 1936 that benefited the Democratic Party and made it the majority party until the 1968 presidential election.
According to some scholars, the presidential election of 1928 foreshadowed the New Deal realignment that was eventually confirmed by the 1936 presidential and congressional elections. Al Smith, the Democratic presidential nominee of 1928, was a Catholic, antiprohibition governor of New York who lost decisively to Herbert Hoover. Not only did Smith fail to carry his home state in the electoral college, but he also lost several normally Democratic border and southern states to Hoover. Smith, however, did carry the two most Catholic states, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and proved to be more attractive to non-Irish Catholics, African Americans, Jews, immigrant women, and industrial workers than previous Democratic presidential nominees. In short, according to this interpretation, the urban, northern, multiethnic base of Smith's popular vote in 1928 served as as the demographic foundation for the later, New Deal realignment of the Democratic Party.
The widespread, severe economic suffering caused by the Great Depression contributed to the Democrats winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930 and both houses of Congress and the presidency in 1932. The Democrats also gained congressional seats in 1934, a rare accomplishment for the president's party in a midterm election. Until the results of 1936 presidential and congressional elections were analyzed, however, it was not certain during Roosevelt's first term if a long-term realignment of voting blocs establishing the Democratic Party as the new majority party had been effected. For example, African Americans, who were suffering economically more than whites, voted about 65 percent Republican for president in 1932. Leaders of political movements of economic protest criticized Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the Democratic Party for being too cautious, moderate, and ineffective in combating the Great Depression, and they threatened his reelection.
But Roosevelt was re-elected with more than 60 percent of the popular vote and carried 46 of the 48 states in the electoral college. While maintaining the pre-New Deal Democratic loyalty of southern whites and Irish Catholics, Roosevelt received over-whelming majorities from African Americans, Jews, non-Irish Catholics, urban residents in general, and labor union members. The New Deal's social welfare programs, public works projects, and labor reforms, especially the Wagner Act of 1935, were instrumental in developing organized labor as a major source of votes, campaign finance and services, and interest group strength for the Democratic Party during and long after the New Deal realignment.
As a consequence of the 1936 election results, the Democratic Party became the nation's majority in voter registration for the first time since 1856. Many rural, non-southern white Protestants who had voted Democratic from 1932 to 1936 began to return to the Republican Party in 1938, and there was a steady decline in the national Democratic Party's electoral appeal to southern whites after World War II and, to a lesser extent, to Catholics by the late 1960s. Nonetheless, the political realignment of voting blocs, party identification, and electoral behavior stemming from the Great Depression, the New Deal, and Franklin D. Roosevelt enabled the Democratic Party to dominate the presidency, Congress, and policymaking, and even to influence the internal politics of the Republican Party long after the Great Depression.
Key, V. O., Jr. "A Theory of Critical Elections." Journal of Politics 17 (1955): 3–18.
Key, V. O., Jr. "Secular Realignment and the Party System." Journal of Politics 21 (1959): 198–210.
Savage, Sean J. Roosevelt: The Party Leader, 1932–1945. 1991.
Sean J. Savage