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The veneer of GOP success

SEVERAL weeks into 1985, it's clear that debate on party realignment has not faded with the immediacy of November's election. Year-end poll roundups suggest that the Republicans are now more competitive with the Democrats in voters' partisan self-identification than at any time since the 1950s. Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly couch arguments in terms of their responsibility as the new national majority, and Reaganites are promoting the idea of incipient realignment to support the President's cause in his forthcoming fiscal combat with Congress. Yet this is a tricky game, and realignment rhetoric is by no means rooted in compelling numbers and inexorable logic. On the national level, to be sure, many conservative Democrats and independents, having decided to help elect Republican Presidents in four of the last five elections, now seem to be giving up on the Democrats and identifying themselves as Republicans or Republican-leaners when pollsters inquire.

This party re-identification process does not, however, seem to have helped the Republicans below the presidential and US Senate levels. On the contrary, one of the most striking (and little understood) aspects of the 1984 elections is how poorly, at least in historical terms, the Republicans did at the grass roots -- in the United States House races, in governorships, and in state legislatures. In all three categories the 1984 elections set a negative record. Never before, in years when the Republicans were able to elect a president, did they elect so few men and women to these other offices. The chart below provides vivid illustration.

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Below the US Senate, the GOP's shortfalls are clear. This is the first time during the 20th century that a Republican President was elected carrying fewer than 190 GOP members of the House of Representatives into office with him. And also the first time this century that the GOP won the presidency without at least 19 governors and full control of at least 15 state legislatures.

Republican national chairman Frank Fahrenkopf has recently announced a new GOP grand design to rebuild party strength in state governorships and state legislatures in time for a dominant Republican role in the congressional and legislative redistricting that will occur after the 1990 census. It's a sound objective, of course. But it's also very much an uphill ambition -- and I wonder if Mr. Fahrenkopf realizes just how far the grass-roots GOP has slipped. The truth, however, is that Republican US House and state-level strength is now somewhat below the levels prevailing after Richard Nixon's two presidential victories and well below the levels prevailing after Dwight Eisenhower's two elections. Difficult as it may be for current GOP policymakers to credit, after Mr. Eisenhower's 1952 victory the Republicans actually controlled a majority of the US Senate, of the US House, of governorships, and of state legislatures. As the chart shows, the situation today could not be more different.

In my view, these trends spell de-alignment more than realignment. On the presidential level, with the Democrats tilting left, embracing cultural exotica and spurning Middle America, a partial pro-GOP realignment has occurred over the past 16 years. But in the US House and at the state level, the pattern of deterioration has been Republican.

Still another aspect of the case against full-scale realignment is the low 1984 turnout level. Only 52.9 percent of the eligible-age population voted, up from just 52.6 percent in 1980. And inasmuch as black organizations, labor unions, and especially the Republicans spent huge sums on voter registration, collectively claiming nearly 10 million new registrants, one hesitates to suggest what records apathy could have set without these efforts. Total turnout might have slipped to 51 percent or even 50 percent.

On the national level, because the public has rejected the Democrats, they have elected Republicans. On the state level, because they have declined to accept the Republicans, they have continued to elect Democrats. The ongoing institutional monopoly of the two-party system negates other options and keeps speculation focused on traditional ``realignment.'' Even so, the public's low enthusiasm level is a powerful signal that something else is under way.

Kevin Phillips is an author, commentator, and publisher of The American Political Report. Chart: Year of Republican President winning election

1952 1956 1968 1972 1980 1984 Number of: GOP senators 48* 47* 43 42 53 53 GOP House members 221 201 192 192 193 183 GOP governors 30 19 31 19 23 16 State legislatures 26** 17** 20 16 15 11 under GOP control Total state 3647 3211 3165 3064 2935 3057 legislators * Senate had only 96 members; ** Only 48 states.

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