Brinkley's Ancient History, Humbug

 Posted by  Larry Bartels

Brinkley’s Ancient History, Humbug

Alan Brinkley is a terrific historian. For all I know, he may even be a terrific provost. But he shouldn’t be moonlighting as a political scientist. His recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, “The Party’s Over,” is one of the most woefully uninformed pieces of highbrow electoral analysis to appear this year. Brinkley attributes “our volatile presidential elections” to “the birth of a post-partisan world.” That is a nice distillation of the conventional wisdom of the 1970s, but ludicrous as a description of the contemporary electoral landscape, which is less volatile and more partisan than it has been at any time in the past half-century or more.
Michele Epstein, CSDP’s program manager and blog goddess, suggests that Brinkley should peruse the transcript from the first installment of the Brookings-Princeton Election Series, which focused on political parties and partisanship. I can’t disagree. However, in deference to his weighty administrative responsibilities, I’ll summarize the most relevant snippets here.
Partisan voting in presidential elections has increased steadily and substantially over the past 30 years. Here is a tabulation reflecting both the prevalence of partisan attachments in the electorate and the impact of those attachments on voting behavior, updating similar tabulations I published in 1992 (in an edited volume on Electioneering) and in a 2000 article in the American Journal of Political Science.  By the 1990s, voting behavior had already become much more partisan than in the partisan heyday of the 1950s described by the authors of The American Voter. Far from having invented the politics of “the base,” Karl Rove simply rode the wave. There is little reason to expect that Senator Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric and Senator McCain’s “maverick” image will produce any fundamental departure from this pattern in 2008.
And while Brinkley is correct in noting that recent elections have been close, they certainly have not been volatile by historical standards. My 1998 article in Electoral Studies on “Electoral Continuity and Change” tracked electoral volatility in presidential elections from the end of the Civil War through 1996. The level of volatility at the end of that period was about one-quarter of what it had been in the 1970s, rivaling the historic low-point of the 1880s and ‘90s. Conversely, a measure of “partisan forces” reflecting the continuity of voting patterns from election to election registered a peak in 1996 comparable to the historic high point a century earlier.
The striking absence of volatility in recent presidential elections is evident from a simple comparison of state-by-state voting patterns in successive elections. State voting patterns in 1988 were strongly correlated with voting patterns in 1984, as I showed in that same 1992 book chapter. Since then, voting patterns have become even more stable. Bush’s support in each state in 2004 closely mirrored his support in 2000, in spite of all the political shocks of the intervening four years—including the disputed 2000 election outcome, a major redistribution of the federal tax burden, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the first year and a half of the war in Iraq.

State Level patterns.jpg

 Alan Abramowitz presented a parallel figure at our Brookings seminar relating state-by-state polls from 2008 to voting patterns from 2004. That correlation, too, is remarkably strong, especially in light of the inevitable noise in the state-by-state poll results. Despite the talk of Obama and McCain redrawing the electoral map, there is every reason to expect that the distribution of votes in 2008 will reflect the same remarkably stable pattern evident in the past several election cycles—the exact opposite of the volatile, post-partisan politics conjured up by Brinkley.


1 Comment

More on Brinkley from John Sides (and some commenters) at The Monkey Cage (

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The mission of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School is to promote empirical research on democratic processes and institutions.  That broad mandate has attracted a diverse collection of faculty, students, and visitors pursuing a wide variety of research topics. However, the American electoral process has been a recurrent focus of interest for many of the scholars associated with CSDP and a frequent topic of conferences, colloquia, and other events sponsored by the Center.  As the 2008 campaign unfolds, we thought it might be helpful and fun to collect the election-related research, analyses, and offbeat insights of our extended scholarly community, both for our own edification and as a resource for others interested in how political scientists are thinking about the election.  We welcome contributions, comments, and suggestions. For more about the people and activities of CSDP, please visit our website, To post a comment, click the "speech bubble."

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