Understanding the 1994 Election
Still No Realignment
The change in the composition of Congress resulting from the 1994 election was viewed by some Republicans as a "triumph of conservatism over the perceived abuses of liberalism." In this working paper, Resident Scholar Oren Levin-Waldman examines polling data to explore whether the rejection of Congressional incumbents was a function of their perceived corruption or a desire to elect representatives whose ideology better reflected those of the electorate. Levin-Waldman analyzes polling results in the context of two models that might explain the results of the 1994 election: a traditional model in which incumbents are rejected for failing to deliver on their campaign promises and a realignment model in which the rejection is part of a general pattern of political realignment.
Realignments represent systemic changes in American politics, and they occur when an issue or issues polarizes voters significantly enough to motivate them to change party affiliation. Levin-Waldman points out that voter turnout in the 1994 election was not high. In addition, he notes that even if people were dissatisfied, there was no issue or set of issues that appeared to polarize voters. Neither the economy (and Clinton's handling of it) nor family financial situations appear to have been critical issues for voters. Levin-Waldman also finds that a majority of respondents felt that neither party could do a better job than the other. However, in reply to questions about solving specific problems (such as unemployment and health care), most voters in 1994 said that Republicans could do a better job—a reversal from 1992, when most respondents felt that Democrats could do a better job. Given the overwhelming Democratic victory of that year, Levin-Waldman questions whether the 1994 victory represents a trend.