Political scientists often study voting patterns to determine partisan preferences among selected voter groups. Voter groups, such as those based on income levels, education levels, gender, age, regional location, religion, race, or ethnicity, have historically changed their partisan preferences at times in a process called realignment.
Political scientist V O. Key Jr., in "A Theory of Critical Elections" (1955), defined realignment as occurring when cross-cutting issues tear apart old partisan alliances and create new ones during an election cycle. For instance, in the 1930s, American president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of union rights, government jobs programs, and social welfare caused large groups of voters who had previously voted Republican to switch to the Democrats.
Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham (1970) elaborated on the critical election theory of American politics, finding a cyclical pattern of every thirty to forty years for such a phenomenon and stating that such elections tend to create a new majority political party for decades afterward.
Because no critical election has been apparent in modern American politics, more recent political science studies of voting patterns tend to focus on the more gradual realignment processes that appear to have occurred since the 1950s or on the concept of dealignment, a belief that partisan attachments among voters are in decline. Studies of modern voting patterns outside of the United States also usually examine long-term realigning processes or a decline of long-term partisan attachments among voters.
Throughout history, democratic elections and partisan divisions around the world have often been organized along regional, ethnic, and religious lines. Class distinctions in voting patterns became important in many countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And by the end of the twentieth century, partisan voting differences related to race, educational level, age, and gender also became apparent in many countries.
While specific issues are important in explaining some of the partisan divisions and voting patterns, shared cultural attitudes toward government, society, and other groups often provide a stronger explanation. Examples are plenty among democracies of one group in society favoring a political party while another group in historical, social, or political opposition to the first group favors another political party.
AMERICAN HISTORICAL VOTING PATTERNS
In the United States, regional divisions became strong immediately prior to and after the Civil War of 1861-1865. Following the war, many northern parts of the United States, which had favored the abolition of slavery, supported the new Republican Party, while most white voters in the southern United States, who had opposed abolition, favored the Democrats. While the South also had a large African American population, most of that population was prevented from voting through intimidation and legal measures for much of the period between 1877 and 1965.
These regional divisions strengthened in the 1890s when a Populist agrarian and fundamentalist Christian movement took over the Democratic Party, and most Catholic immigrant populations in the northern United States joined northern Protestants in voting solidly Republican for the following forty years. However, Catholic voters in New York City remained mostly Democratic, and by the 1910s and 1920s, the majority Republican Party had split between a conservative wing and a progressive wing.
During the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt put together a "New Deal coalition" of support for the now majority Democratic Party by supporting new social welfare programs and union rights for working-class Americans, including Catholics, Jews, and African Americans in the North, as well as government reforms to appeal to progressive, educated voters and infrastructure spending to continue the support from southern white voters.
However, a party that tried to create a coalition of northern progressive voters, African Americans, and southern white conservative voters in the United States was doomed not to last, and by the 1960s, the Democratic New Deal coalition fell apart over such issues as equal rights for African Americans, the Vietnam War, environmental and consumer regulations, religious and family values, and gun control and responses to crime.
Prior to the 1960s, both the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States were catchall parties containing members and politicians from all ideological persuasions. But the realignment that began in the 1960s made the Republicans into a clearly conservative party favoring less government regulation, more military spending, imposition of the death penalty for violent crimes, opposition to limits on gun ownership, and support for traditional cultural values such as prayer in schools and opposition to gay marriage. Much of this shift in Republican ideology came from the strengthened role of southern politicians and voters in the party. The Democrats took stances opposite to the Republicans on most of those issues. Moderates did remain in each party, however, sometimes taking positions closer to the majority from the other party.
MODERN AMERICAN VOTING PATTERNS
This change in U.S. voting patterns has led to what many in the American media labeled the division of the "red states and the blue states," named for a color-coded map used in the 2000 presidential election showing which states voted for the Republican presidential candidate and which voted for the Democratic candidate. On this map, Republican states were red, with Democratic states blue.
American voting patterns had evolved in the early twenty-first century to the regional opposite of what they had been a hundred years earlier. In the four presidential elections occurring between 1992 and 2004, the Democratic Party swept almost entirely the states of the Northeast and Pacific Coast areas as well as the states bordering on the Great Lakes in the Midwest region. The Republican Party during those elections swept almost entirely the states of the South and of the center of the country west from the Great Lakes through the Rocky Mountain region.
Strong racial and religious voting patterns also emerged in the United States over the period after the 1950s, with African Americans and Jewish Americans overwhelmingly supporting the Democrats, and the most religious white Americans strongly favoring Republicans.
While a majority of higher income U.S. voters continued to support the Republican Party in the early twenty-first century because of the party’s stance on low taxes, voting patterns based on educational levels began to change after the 1950s. Over the following fifty years, while the voters with the lowest educational levels and lowest incomes tended to remain as Democratic supporters, the voters with the highest educational levels, with graduate degrees, also became more Democratic, making the party to some extent a coalition of the most educated and least educated. The Republicans were at their strongest among those who had completed some years of university but had not finished.
A gender gap also opened up in the United States during the 1980s and continued into the twenty-first century. In every presidential election from 1988 to 2004, women preferred the Democratic presidential candidate, while men preferred the Republican presidential candidate, according to polls.
The presidential election of 2004 also showed the beginning of a possible new generation gap in American voting patterns, with voters under age thirty preferring the Democratic candidate for president, and older voters preferring the Republican.
MODERN VOTING PATTERNS AROUND THE WORLD
Such voting patterns and divisions of voter groups can be found in most other countries with democratic elections. Traditional economic class divisions between working-class voter support for left-wing parties and middle- and upper-class support for right-wing parties in Europe were common for much of the twentieth century, but many of those divisions began to blur by the end of the century as some voters focused more on noneconomic issues.
Regional divisions in voting patterns have been strong in many countries. In Canada, the Conservative Party dominated in the western part of the country in the early twenty-first century, while the Liberal Party dominated the most populous province of Ontario, and parties advocating independence for Quebec tended to dominate politics in that province.
In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party in the early twenty-first century had trouble winning any parliamentary seats in the northern part of England, and in Scotland and Wales, limiting its ability to form a new majority in the House of Commons. Voting patterns in many other European countries showed a strong regional basis in the early twenty-first century, with a former Communist party winning many votes in the former East Germany in German elections, a Northern League regional party in Italy participating in government coalitions, and Basque and Catalan regional nationalist parties winning a number of seats in the Spanish Cortes Generales.
Voter turnout is a political phenomenon related to voting patterns, with voter turnout usually being defined as the percentage of the voting-age population who participate in an election, though the exact method by which turnout is measured can vary by country. In general, the United States and Switzerland have long had the lowest voter turnout among economically advanced countries, in part because of the frequency and complexity of elections in those countries. In the United States, only about half of adults were voting in presidential elections by the end of the twentieth century, with far lower numbers for other types of elections.
While turnout in other economically advanced democracies was generally much higher than in the United States during the 1900s, the trend in most countries has been toward declining turnout closer to the American tradition, with younger and less educated voters in particular among the least likely to participate in elections. Such a global decline in voter turnout may also have implications for changes in voting patterns throughout the twenty-first century.