Are Political Landslides a Thing of the Past?

From the US midterms to Brazil’s presidential race, 2022 has witnessed many very closely fought elections. Whilst pollsters have frequently predicted giant waves for one side or the other, many elections this year have instead seen only minor changes in voting patterns, sometimes enough to tip the result and sometimes not. In the wake of such contradictions, is it now time to ask whether, in many countries, political landslides are now consigned to the past?

To understand, one needs to look no further than Brazil’s presidential election, where, just days before the first round of voting, pollsters had the Workers’ Party’s Lula da Silva ten points ahead of incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. However, come the first round of voting, Lula’s actual lead amounted to around 5 percentage points, with this lead slipping to less than 2% in the second-round runoff. Likewise, a similar story could be seen in the US midterms, where the expected “red wave” never materialised, with the Democrats losing the House of Representatives by just a few votes and the Senate equally tight. Likewise, even in elections where the results have been more one-sided, many of these elections have been notable for their lack of a dramatic change in vote share compared to previous elections. In France, for example, whilst Le Pen made significant inroads in 2022’s presidential race, her vote still remained far behind Macron’s.

So just what is behind this apparent trend? To explore this we need to look closer at the elections at hand. For one thing, these three elections seem to share a similar story of centre or centre-left mainstream politicians and parties competing against the forces of the populist radical right. In these elections, candidates on both sides have presented their opponents as a threat to their voters’ way of life, focusing on sociocultural issues to drive up turnout. The issue of abortion, for example, is thought to have driven up youth Democrat turnout in the US.

These elections thus seem to demonstrate a continuation of the populist-mainstream cleavage evident in many elections in the latter part of the 2010s. The same polarising social and cultural issues that dominated the agenda during Trump’s first election win seem to hold just as much sway now. The result has been the continuation of a very polarised style of politics, in which politicians have sought more to mobilise their base rather than reach across the political divide on polarising issues, to attract swing voters. Many political scientists have thus concluded that in this world of high issue-polarisation, the swing voters previously attributed for huge election landslides no longer exist on the scale they used to, with political scientist Rachel Bitecofer going so far as to suggest election votes are now determined almost solely by politicians mobilising their own support base. Thus, in this view, the type of landslide elections which were common in the US, for example, in the late 20th century, can no longer occur now.

However, can we really extrapolate this pattern for the whole democratic world? A quick look at polling in many countries with a similar previous recent history of populism would suggest otherwise. Labour’s 20 percentage point lead in current UK polls, for example, suggests that we haven’t seen the last of big-swing elections. Defenders of the landslide thesis will however point to Labour’s avoidance of polarising sociocultural issues, such as Brexit, to explain their apparent ability to attract 2019 Tory voters, with Labour currently polling a 23% lead over the Tories in so-called “red wall”. It also remains to be seen that, if Labour are forced to take sides on more divisive issues in the run up to a general election, whether they’ll be able to retain such a poll lead.

Yet other critics of this supposed end-of-landslides theory will debate the extent to which landslides in voting behaviour have occurred at all in the past half century. For many such people, supposed landslides are more the result of irregularities in majoritarian electoral systems than changes in voting behaviour. For example, one could point to the UK Conservative’s huge electoral defeat in 1997, where they lost around 25% of their vote share but over half their seats. By contrast, in Germany’s 2021 federal election, the CDU lost a similar share of their popular vote, but lost just over 20% of their seats, due to Germany’s more proportional electoral system. From this perspective, has today’s climate of political polarisation engendered the end of landslide victories, if historical landslides are more a product of electoral systems than changes in voting behaviour?

Nevertheless, whatever one attributes to be the cause of historical landslides, it is clear that in certain countries, the huge degree of political polarisation has led to high rates of turnout for party-affiliated voters and a decreased role for the swing voter. In the US, for example, the high rates of Democrat turnout, despite Biden’s low approval ratings, demonstrates how we seem to be entering a period where party-affiliated voters are more likely to vote, regardless of what their party does in power. It remains to be seen yet whether the huge polarisation in countries like Brazil and the US will lead to the continuation of very close elections, and to what extent the pattern will be the same for other democratic countries moving forward.

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