1994 Congressional Elections: An Analysis

Realignment and Dealignment

Curtis Gans

The Republican Party won a majority of the votes cast for Congress for the first time since 1946 in 1994, which featured only the second significant increase in mid-term turnout in a quarter century.

In all, 75,114,722 eligible Americans voted in the 1994 election, a 38.8% turnout -- up 2.3 percentage points from 1990. An estimated 108,000,000 eligible Americans did not vote and turnout was more than 20% lower than in the 1960s.

These findings are from a report on the 1994 mid-term election by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE), a non-partisan, non-profit research organization. This study was based on the final and official registration and turnout statistics from 50 states and the District of Columbia and an analysis of the U.S. Bureau of the Census Current Population Survey report on the 1994 election.

Among the principal findings of the Committee's study were:

Census Bureau Data

The Committee's analysis of the Census Bureau's survey showed:

Realignment in the South

While the election was a resounding victory for the Republicans -- no incumbent Republican lost, its lasting effect may well be limited to the South, where a realignment toward the GOP seems to be in place for at least a generation.

This election was the first, but surely not the last, in which the GOP won a majority of the votes for Congress and a majority of House seats. It was an accident awaiting an unpopular (in the region) Democratic President to happen. The region as a whole is more conservative than the nation, and the GOP is the more conservative party.

While the Democrats still enjoy a 37.8% to 22.4 registration advantage in the South, that registration advantage has slipped from a 53.8% to 11.8% edge which existed in 1962. And it is likely to slip even further as being a Republican in fact as well as in voting behavior becomes more respectable in the region and as the impact of the new motor voter law is felt in the region whose restrictive registration laws the new legislation will do most to repair.

Despite the lingering Democratic registration advantage in the region, Southerners have been more likely to vote for the GOP in Presidential elections since the late 1960s and the number of Democratic statewide office-holders has dwindled.

The trend in the South is unmistakable. Since 1970, after the full impact of the Voting Rights Act was felt, the Republicans have reversed what was a 18.5% to 10.0% deficit in House votes into the 17.1% to 13.5% majority it enjoyed in the 1994 election.

That trend is likely to continue for at least a generation. There will likely be further defections of Democratic office-holders to the GOP and more GOP victories in marginal districts. The Democrats went into the 1994 election with an 8-5 margin of House seats. It would not surprise me if the GOP achieved that margin in the next two election cycles.

No Realignment Elsewhere

No similar realignment could be seen nationally in the 1994 vote. While the Republicans won the House vote in every region except New England, their biggest margins over the Democrats were in the farm belt of the Midwest (9.1 percentage points), the Rocky Mountain States (8.8), the South (7.5) and the Southwest (5.3), all (save the South) previously GOP strongholds. Margins in other regions were 2.5 percentage points or lower.

No party which can only get 19% of the vote can claim a national mandate. The fact that there was a slight rise in the vote indicates that a portion of the electorate was activated in the 1994 election, but the size of the rise and the level of overall GOP support indicates that this was more of a negative mandate against the Democrats rather than a positive mandate for the Republicans.

Democratic Disarray

Nothing in this election can be comforting to the Democrats. Not only did they lose their majorities in both Houses of Congress, they also lost their voting power relative to Republicans in every region of the country -- including the regions which they won -- New England and the Middle Atlantic states. Perhaps of equal import, three groups key to their 1992 electoral success -- the poor, the blacks and young citizens -- all reported lower participa´┐Ż tion. In the case of both the poor (those with incomes under $15,000) and first time voters (those aged 18-19), the decline was particularly sharp.

The Democrats face a very difficult immediate future. They are operating under a number of constraints which make victory in 1996 very problematic. They are unlikely to win any state in the South, save perhaps Arkansas. Their hands will be tied by budget constraints on any new substantive initiatives. And they must fashion an electoral strategy to win in New England, the Middle Atlantic states, the Rust Belt and the Far West, with key core constituencies necessary for that victory in an apparent state of demobilization.

The Democratic disarray is a deserved product of two major missteps -- the failure in 1994 to offer any theme or message around which to rally and the failure over a 25-year period to fashion an approach uniting the middle and underclass wings of the party. They seem no closer to such a message now.

The only comfort the Democrats can draw is that their national decline in turnout was only 1.26 percentage points and that the Presidential electorate (an election in which citizens vote at a 10-15 point higher rate than in mid-term elections) is likely to be far less skewed toward high income brackets.

Future Voter Turnout

Two factors point to increased turnout: the implementation of the National Voter Registration Act (the so-called motor voter law), which is likely to substantially increase registration and thus those who have the potential to vote -- particularly in the South -- and the increasing likelihood of credible candidates beyond the two major parties.

Factors pointing to the potential of decreased turnout include: the general demobilization of the electorate over the last three decades; the decreased allegiance to and mobilizing ability of either major political party; the hope factor -- the lack of feeling that the results of the 1996 election will produce significant beneficial changes in the lives of most Americans; and the continuing conduct of campaigns at the most negative and destructive levels.

What we are seeing is dealignment rather than realignment -- a turning away from both major political parties.

Dealignment and Democratic Decay

Three pieces of information from this study stand out as a harbingers of future politics:

What we are seeing is dealignment rather than realignment -- a turning away from both major political parties. And despite the increases in turnout in both the 1992 Presidential election and the 1994 midterm, the future trend is toward disengagement and non-participation. The 1994 election can properly be seen as similar to the elections of 1966, 1974, 1980 and 1992 -- as rejections of the party in power, but without offering much hope for long term citizen re-engagement in the future.

Given two factors -- the growing disaffection from both major parties and nominating rules that will likely select the nominees of the two major parties by the end of March 1996 -- a serious independent or third party candidacy becomes an increasing possibility.

Curtis Gans is director of The Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, D.C. For information, write to 421 New Jersey Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003 (202) 546-3221.


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