Partisanship in U.S. Elections

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  • 0:03 Partisanship in Elections
  • 1:24 Realigning Elections
  • 3:02 Maintaining Elections
  • 5:07 Deviating Elections
  • 6:24 Reinstating Elections
  • 7:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Partisanship can create several different types of election results. This lesson explores partisan election results, including realigning elections, maintaining elections, deviating elections and reinstating elections.

Partisanship in Elections

Our 2008 presidential election was one of the most pivotal in history. With growing opposition against the war in Iraq, many voters turned away from the reigning Republicans. The country saw a shift toward liberalism, and Barack Obama won.

This type of shift is based on partisanship. The role of partisanship in United States presidential elections cannot be underestimated. Partisanship refers to allegiance to, or prejudice in favor of, a particular political party. When we talk about the role of partisanship in a presidential election, we're talking about the struggle for power between the political parties. We're talking about the individual voters and their allegiances to their political parties. We're examining how those allegiances affect the results of the presidential elections.

Research shows that partisanship can create several different types of election results. Partisan elections fall into one of four categories:

  • Realigning elections
  • Maintaining elections
  • Deviating elections
  • Reinstating elections

Let's take a look at each of these types of elections with some examples.

Realigning Elections

The first type is a realigning election. This type is also known as a 'critical election.' It's an election that begins a period of time of dominancy for a political party. A realigning election happens when one political party gains control of the government from another party. It's called a 'realignment' because the election marks a change.

Realigning elections usher in long-term adjustments in the nation's political attitudes. The nation's overall political attitude swings from leaning liberal to leaning conservative, or vice versa. Typically, these elections involve a high voter turnout. There's usually a hot political issue that brings out strong feelings in the voters.

For example, the 1932 presidential election was a critical, or realigning, election. Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt won in a landslide over Republican President Herbert Hoover. Under Hoover, Americans experienced the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression. Roosevelt ran on a promise of a New Deal featuring unemployment assistance, labor protection and other aid. Voters readily abandoned the nearly 150 year old tradition of limited government. Instead, they opted for social and economic assistance through intense government action.

Maintaining Elections

Following Roosevelt's realigning election, the nation saw a series of maintaining elections. A maintaining election is one in which the dominant political party wins the election and remains in power. The 1932 election marked a realignment from Republican to Democratic dominancy. The next four presidential elections maintained the status quo. The Democrats remained in power.

Maintaining elections are the most common type of partisan election. These elections show continuity in the political process. Typically, no major events occur to upset the nation's overall political attitudes, so no major political upheavals result.

For example, President Roosevelt won re-election by a large victory in 1936. Portions of his New Deal legislation had yet to be enacted, while other portions were in use and wildly popular. Voters still hoped for an end to the Great Depression. They re-elected Roosevelt again in both 1940 and 1944. In these years, the country was grappling with World War II and the lingering Great Depression. Many voters felt Roosevelt was making progress on these issues, and he remained a popular president.

However, Roosevelt's unprecedented lengthy presidency led to the enactment of the 22nd Amendment, which limits the United States presidency to no more than two elections. Roosevelt died just a few months into his fourth term. He was replaced with Democratic Vice President Harry Truman. And though Truman was expected to lose to Republican challenger Thomas Dewey in 1948, Truman secured re-election. Even the press got it wrong! These maintaining elections meant the Democrats remained the dominant party through 1952.

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