Permanent majorities are as real as the Easter Bunny.

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No Party Will Get a Permanent Majority

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Many Republicans seem confident that last week's performance in the mid-term elections bodes the end of the Obama era, and the dawn of the bright Republican future.  Many Democrats seem confident that last week's performance in the midterms was a mere blip on the way to the Emerging Democratic Majority.  Both sides would do well to read Sean Trende's 2012 book, The Lost Majority, which I made my way through this weekend.

To state Trende's thesis simply: There is no such thing as a permanent majority.  Parties are coalitions of disparate groups of voters, and they win by strapping enough different groups together to push themselves across the electoral finish line.  Unfortunately, the broader your coalition, the harder it is to hold together.  Those different groups may have radically different values and interests; satisfying one may end up alienating the other. Trende suggests that the longest-lived coalition was not, in fact Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famed "realignment," which showed large cracks as early as 1937, but the Eisenhower coalition that lasted roughly from 1952 to 1988.  As the dates suggest, the reason for unity was the external threat from the Soviet Union.  That's a pretty stiff price to pay for internal unity.

I took two major things away from the book: First, you can't count on demographics to hand you a victory in such a vast and diverse country, because today's coalition members may end up as a large and growing pillar of the opposition.  And second, although both parties are constantly hunting for a mandate for radical change, the voters almost never deliver one.  The party stalwarts may want to tear down the current edifice and start over, but the less ideological coalition partners are usually looking for some light redecorating, perhaps along with a specific personal interest like freedom of conscience in business operations, or less restrictive immigration policy.  The harder the parties push on their ideological platforms, the faster the "coalition of everyone" starts leaking supporters to the opposition.  

Even without overreach, however, these coalitions are vulnerable to bad policy choices or bad luck.  The Iraq War was popular, but it was badly bungled, and that cost Republicans dearly in 2006.  So did the financial crisis, even though George Bush had not himself been writing any bad mortgage loans.  Large coalitions are inherently vulnerable, because the majority of their supporters are not as committed to the party's ideological vision as the base of stalwarts that staffs the party headquarters, the campaigns, and the administrations.  The longer your coalition has lasted, the more likely some accident will blow it apart.

Obama did not have the progressive mandate he dreamed of, and if a Republican gets elected in 2016, he won't have a sweeping conservative mandate either.  The more convinced parties are that they are on the cusp of cementing their power, the more likely their majority is already crumbling.

I'm sure political scientists, of which I am not one, will take issue with various parts of the book.  But I found it immensely useful in thinking about this past election, and the one to come, and recommend it to all of my readers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Megan McArdle at

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