Parties struggle with shifting coalitions
Parties struggle with shifting coalitions

The wealthy, well-educated voters of Orange County, Calif., have been Republicans for generations. But Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric was too much for many of those who pulled the lever for Mitt Romney or John McCain, and Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat to win the county in decades.

The working-class residents of Swift County, Minn., have been reliably Democratic votes since the New Deal. But Trump’s promise to shake up a broken system, and Clinton’s ties to a deeply unpopular status quo, drove them into Republican hands.

Across the nation, a presidential contest between the two least-popular nominees in modern American history reshuffled political coalitions on both sides of the aisle. Hundreds of thousands of voters who backed Barack Obama chose Trump, and hundreds of thousands who sided with Romney migrated to Clinton.

Now, both major political parties are in a state of deep disrepair, burdened by a mistrusting electorate motivated more by fear than ambition and searching for a viable path ahead.

Experts in both parties say each side must rebuild the coalitions they will need to win future elections — but those rebuilding missions have been slow to take shape.

“The short-term future of the two party coalitions is that they are becoming smaller, more ideologically and demographically consistent within themselves, and inward-focused rather than outward-focused,” said Tim Saler, a Republican demographic and data analytics expert.

This is the 20th story in The Hill’s Changing America series, in which we investigate the economic and demographic trends shaping American politics. Even as those trends push some voters to the right and others to the left, they have conspired to fracture the partisan coalitions that have dominated American politics for half a century.

Both coalitions were ripe for dismantling as discontent with the political status quo mounted. Fewer Americans now align with one of the two major political parties, and more call themselves independent, than ever before.

At the same time, those who identify with one party are more likely to see the other side as a cause for fear or alarm. The Pew Research Center has found that about 6 in 10 Republicans and Democrats view the other party with anxiety and trepidation.

“People don’t necessarily like their party more. They sure as heck fear the other party,” said Rob Griffin, a demographer at the Center for American Progress and George Washington University. “Partisanship is high, but the parties are weak.”

The antipathy for the other party is increasingly apparent in geographic voting patterns. As recently as 1992, just three counties gave one presidential contender more than 80 percent of the vote. When George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, 81 counties gave him or Democrat Al Gore more than 80 percent. In 2016, the number of hyperpartisan counties ballooned to 388.

And the antipathy for the two-party system as a whole is evident, too, in the last two winning presidents. Both Obama and Trump cast themselves as atypical politicians, running to change the political system itself. To a lesser extent, so did Bush and Bill Clinton, both Washington outsiders elected to shake up the status quo.

But the two parties have realigned at different speeds: Democrats have experienced a slow evolution, while…