A political realignment, often called a critical election, critical realignment, or realigning election, in the academic fields of political science and political history, is a set of sharp changes in party ideology, issues, party leaders, regional and demographic bases of power of political parties, and the structure or rules of the political system, such as voter eligibility or financing. The changes result in a new political power structure that lasts for decades, replacing an older dominant coalition. Scholars frequently invoke the concept in American elections and occasionally those of other countries. American examples include the 1896 United States presidential election, when the issues of the American Civil War political system were replaced with those of the Populist and Progressive Era, and the 1932 United States presidential election, when the Populist and Progressive Eras were replaced by the New Deal issues of New Deal liberalism and modern conservatism.
Realigning elections typically separate (what are known in the field of comparative politics as) party systems—with 1828, for example, separating the First Party System and the Second Party System in the US. It is generally accepted that the United States has had five distinct party systems, each featuring two major parties attracting a consistent political coalition and following a consistent party ideology, separated by four realignments.
Political realignments can be sudden (1–4 years) or can take place more gradually (5–20 years). Most often, however, particularly in V. O. Key Jr.'s (1955) original hypothesis, it is a single "critical election" that marks a realignment. By contrast, a gradual process is called a secular realignment. Political scientists and historians often disagree about which elections are realignments and what defines a realignment, and even whether realignments occur. The terms themselves are somewhat arbitrary, however, and usage among political scientists and historians does vary. In the US, Walter Dean Burnham argued for a 30–38 year "cycle" of realignments. Many of the elections often included in the Burnham 38-year cycle are considered "realigning" for different reasons.
Other political scientists and quantitative elections analysts reject realignment theory altogether, arguing that there are no long-term patterns. Political scientist David R. Mayhew states, "Electoral politics is to an important degree just one thing after another ... Elections and their underlying causes are not usefully sortable into generation-long spans ... It is a Rip Van Winkle view of democracy that voters come awake only once in a generation ... It is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end."
Sean Trende, senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics, who argues against realignment theory and the "emerging Democratic majority" thesis proposed by journalist John Judis and political scientist Ruy Teixeira in his 2012 book The Lost Majority states, "Almost none of the theories propounded by realignment theorists has endured the test of time... It turns out that finding a 'realigning' election is a lot like finding an image of Jesus in a grilled-cheese sandwich – ." In August 2013, Trende observed that U.S. presidential election results from 1880 through 2012 form a 0.96 correlation with the expected sets of outcomes (i.e. events) in the binomial distribution of a fair coin flip experiment. In May 2015, statistician and FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver argued against a blue wall Electoral College advantage for the Democratic Party in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and in post-election analysis, Silver cited Trende in noting that "there are few if any permanent majorities" and both Silver and Trende argued that the "emerging Democratic majority" thesis led most news coverage and commentary preceding the election to overstate Hillary Clinton's chances of being elected.
The central holding of realignment theory, first developed in the political scientist V. O. Key Jr.'s 1955 article, "A Theory of Critical Elections", is that American elections, parties and policymaking routinely shift in swift, dramatic sweeps.
Key, E. E. Schattschneider, James L. Sundquist, Walter Dean Burnham are generally credited with developing and refining the theory of realignment. Though they differed on some of the details, earlier realignments scholars generally concluded that systematic patterns are identifiable in American national elections such that cycles occur on a regular schedule: once every 36-years or so. This period of roughly 30 years fits with the notion that these cycles are closely linked to generational change. Some, such as Schafer and Reichley, argue that the patterns are longer, closer to 50 to 60 years in duration, noting the Democratic dominance from 1800 to 1860, and Republican rule from 1860 to 1932. Reichley argues that the only true realigning elections occurred in 1800, 1860, and 1932. Given the much longer length of time since the last generally accepted realignment in 1932, more recent scholars have theorized that realignments don't in fact operate on any consistent time scale, but rather occur whenever the necessary political, social, and economic changes occur.
The alignment of 1860, with Republicans winning a series of close presidential elections, yielded abruptly in 1896 to an era of more decisive GOP control, in which most presidential elections were blowouts, and Democratic Congresses were infrequent and brief. Thirty-six years later, that system was displaced by a cycle of Democratic dominance, lasting throughout the Great Depression until Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980 and the House election of 1994 when Republicans regained the majority for the first time in 40 years.
A central component of realignment is the change in behavior of voting groups. Realignment means the switching of voter preference from one party to another, in contrast to dealignment (where a voter group abandons a party to become independent or nonvoting). In the US and Australia, as the ideologies of the parties define many of the aspects of voters' lives and the decisions that they make, a realignment by a voter tends to have a longer-lasting effect.
Here is presented a list of elections most often cited as "realigning", with disagreements noted:
Some debate exists today as to what elections (if any) could be considered realigning elections after 1932. Although several candidates have been proposed, there is no widespread agreement:
The history of the critical realigning elections in Canada, both nationally and in the provinces, is covered by Argyle (2011).
Behiels (2010) suggests that experts in Canadian politics are now reporting that a watershed political realignment is underway, the kind of shift that occurs but once a century. In light of the 2004, 2006, and 2008 minority government elections and the success of Stephen Harper, many journalists, political advisors, and politicians argue that a new political paradigm is emerging, and it is based on Harper's drive for a right-wing political party capable of reconfiguring the role of the state – federal and provincial – in twenty-first century. Bloomfield and Nossal (2007) suggest that the new political alignment has reshaped Canadian foreign policy, especially in improving relations with the US, taking a harder line on the Middle East conflicts, and backing away from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
According to recent scholarship there have been four party systems in Canada at the federal level since Confederation, each with its own distinctive pattern of social support, patronage relationships, leadership styles, and electoral strategies. Steve Patten identifies four party systems in Canada's political history
Clarkson (2005) shows how the Liberal Party has dominated all the party systems, using different approaches. It began with a "clientelistic approach" under Laurier, which evolved into a "brokerage" system of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s under Mackenzie King. The 1950s saw the emergence of a "pan-Canadian system", which lasted until the 1990s. The 1993 election — categorized by Clarkson as an electoral "earthquake" which "fragmented" the party system, saw the emergence of regional politics within a four party-system, whereby various groups championed regional issues and concerns. Clarkson concludes that the inherent bias built into the first-past-the-post system, has chiefly benefited the Liberals.
1896 saw a Liberal victory; Sir Wilfrid Laurier Prime Minister. From the 1867 election until 1896, the Conservative Party of Sir John A. Macdonald had governed Canada, excepting a single term from 1873 to 1878. The Liberals had struggled to retake office, under Laurier and his predecessor, Edward Blake. 1896 was the first election held after the death of Macdonald in 1891, and the Conservatives had been in complete disarray in the ensuing years, with no less than four different leaders. The Liberals would remain in office until 1911. Beyond that, political scientists often consider this election that made the Liberal Party the dominant force in Canadian politics, holding office for more than two thirds of the time between 1896 and 2006.
1984 saw the victory of the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney. The election of 1984 not only saw Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives win the largest number of seats in Canadian History (211 of 282), and the second largest majority (behind John Diefenbaker's 208 of 265 in 1958), it ended over twenty years of Liberal rule, not counting the brief 1979–1980 tenure of Joe Clark. The Liberal Party under prime minister John Turner suffered its worst defeat ever at the time, winning a mere 40 seats. At the time, it was the worst defeat of a sitting government in Canadian history. Turner had just succeeded Pierre Trudeau as prime minister when he decided to call the election, and the Liberals were losing popularity due to the downfall of the economy and Trudeau's last minute patronage appointments.
The PCs' victory was aided in large part by a massive breakthrough in Quebec, winning 58 seats as compared to the one Quebec seat they won in 1980; Mulroney successfully campaigned in Quebec on a message that Trudeau's Liberals had "sold out" the province during the process of patriating the Canadian constitution in 1982, due to the fact that Quebec never formally signed on to the new constitution. The Liberals were cut down to only 17 seats, all but four of them in Montreal. Although Quebec had been a Liberal stronghold since 1896 (with the exception of 1958), from 1984 to the 2015 Canadian federal election the Liberals failed to win the most seats in the province (they came close in 2000 and took the majority by winning several by-elections), making this province the most long-lasting realignment in this election.
Although Mulroney is often grouped with contemporary conservative leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and the 1984 election is seen as Canada's version of the 1979 United Kingdom and 1980 United States elections, Mulroney proved in practice to be a relatively centrist leader.
1993 saw not only the sweeping success of the Liberals under Jean Chrétien, but also the fracturing the Progressive Conservatives' support base to regional parties in Quebec and the western provinces; resulting in a five party political system with the Liberals as the dominant party. Throughout Canadian history two parties had taken turns in government and opposition: the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives (sometimes known as Liberal-Conservatives, Conservatives, Union and National Government). The Conservative majority election victories in 1984 and 1988 were based on a "Grand Coalition" between socially conservative populists from the West, Quebec nationalists, and fiscal conservatives from Ontario and the Maritimes, making it difficult for the Mulroney government to balance these diverse interests. During his second term, Mulroney's policies were unpopular, while the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords frustrated Quebec and stirred up Western alienation. New regional parties which formed in protest to Mulroney's government, the Bloc Québécois in Quebec and the Reform Party in the west won many seats formerly held by the PCs despite a lack of national support. The New Democratic Party, the longtime third party in parliament, fell from 43 seats to nine. The unpopularity of the provincial NDP governments in Ontario and BC reflected badly on the federal NDP, also their endorsement of the Charlottetown Accord and Quebec nationalism cost them support among organized labour and rural voters in the West, which switched their support to Reform. Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservatives were nearly wiped out, falling from 151 seats to only two—the worst defeat of a sitting government at the federal level.
The Liberals under Chrétien would win a further two consecutive majorities in 1997 and 2000, while never being seriously challenged as the largest party. The Progressive Conservatives never recovered, winning 20 (of 301) seats in 1997 and 12 in 2000 before merging with the Reform Party's successor, the Canadian Alliance, to form the new Conservative Party of Canada in late 2003. Due to competition with the Liberals for left-leaning voters, the New Democrats had mixed successes in the next several elections, winning 21 in 1997 but dropping back to 13 in 2000, unable to approach their high-water mark showing until 2006.
While Paul Martin's Liberals retains enough seats to continue as the government, it saw the re-emergence of the Conservatives and the resurgence of Bloc Québécois; resulting in a four party system with the ruling party as a minority government. This was the first of three elections where no party managed a majority of seats.
Martin succeeded a retiring Jean Chrétien in 2003 and initially polls predicted that the Liberals could expand their control of Parliament in the next election, as Martin sought inroads in Quebec and Western Canada, while the newly created Conservative Party was besought by controversy over its merger. However, the revelation of the sponsorship scandal, along with party infighting between Chrétien and Martin weakened the Liberals, while the reunited Conservatives became a viable governing alternative, and the rejuvenated Bloc Québécois. At mid-campaign, polls predicted a Conservative lead, but the Liberals regained enough support to win a plurality of seats to remain the governing party.
Several trends would also begin in 2004 which signaled the Liberal party's decline; notably a high turnover of permanent party leaders (in contrast to their predecessors who usually served over two or more elections), and its inability to raise campaign funds competitively once Chrétien banned corporate donations, and it would gradually lose support to the Conservatives, and later to the NDP.
The 2004 election paved the way for the election of 2006, which brought about the first electoral victory of a Canadian conservative party since 1988 and the first conservative government in Canada since November 1993. This ended 13 years of Liberal government, whose minority government in 2004–2006 was propped up by the New Democratic Party until they withdrew their support after fallout from the sponsorship scandal. As early as 1989, conservative Stephen Harper had theorized that a realignment would occur, pitting middle-class taxpayers against middle-class tax recipients.
The election resulted in a Conservative majority victory under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, after forming two consecutive minority governments. The Liberals dropped to third party status in Parliament for the first time, having previously always been either the governing party or the official opposition, and also no longer had a significant number of seats in Quebec (their bastion of support from 1892 to 1984) or Ontario (a stronghold since 1993, especially the Greater Toronto Area). Some suggested that Rob Ford's mayoral victory in November 2010 had paved the way for the federal Conservatives' successes in Toronto, with right-of-centre politicians garnering significant support from immigrants that traditionally supported the Liberals. The New Democratic Party, led by Jack Layton, won 103 seats to become the official opposition for the first time in party history, as a late-campaign surge of support in Quebec took them from one to 59 seats at the expense of the other parties, particularly the Bloc Québécois which saw their 47 seats in that province reduced to a rump of four seats. The Bloc had previously won the majority of Quebec's seats from 1993 to 2008. The party leaders of the Liberals and the Bloc, Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe, respectively, were personally defeated in their own constituencies. This marked a return to the three party system in parliament which was last seen in the 1988 election.
Commentators after the major shakeup in 2011 stressed the theme of a major realignment. The Economist said, "the election represents the biggest realignment of Canadian politics since 1993." Lawrence Martin, commentator for the Globe and Mail said, "Harper has completed a remarkable reconstruction of a Canadian political landscape that endured for more than a century. The realignment sees both old parties of the moderate middle, the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, either eliminated or marginalized." Maclean's said, the election marked "an unprecedented realignment of Canadian politics" as "the Conservatives are now in a position to replace the Liberals as the natural governing party in Canada." Andrew Coyne proclaimed "The West is in and Ontario has joined it", noting that the Conservatives accomplished the rare feat of putting together a majority by winning in both Ontario and the western provinces (difficult due to traditionally conflicting interests), while having little representation in Quebec.
After the longest campaign in modern Canadian history, the voters ousted Harper's Conservative government and elected a new national government on October 19, 2015. The new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led his Liberal Party to a majority government. The Conservative Party fell to second place with 99 seats, marking a return to previous system with the New Democratic Party returning into a third party status after achieving Official Opposition in 2011. The Liberal Party also won a majority of seats in Quebec for the first time since 1980.
A considerable number of Quebec general elections have been known characterized by high seat turnovers, with certain ones being considered realigning elections, notably:
The Quebec Liberal Party (unaffiliated with the federal Liberals since 1955) survived since Confederation but they have faced different opposition parties, several of which had formed the government, often alternating with the Liberals.
Since the 1990s, provincial elections in Quebec show increasing voter realignment and volatility in party support.