PERHAPS the most striking thing about the American election was how predictable it was. Just about everything happened as it ``should have,'' based on what we knew when the year began. The balloting took place well into the latest of our country's great partisan realignments - this one having begun in the late 1960s. When a realignment is new, its central features - changes in group ties to the political parties, issues cutting in novel directions, etc. - often startle us. But after we have seen them over a series of elections, we take them as givens. That's what happened in 1988. The election told us little we didn't already know. Instead, it was confirming, or reaffirming. The New Deal era now seems as remote as the Age of McKinley.
Our present-day electoral alignment, the product of a quarter-century of change, has five principal components.
A variety of groups vote differently now from the way they did in the New Deal years. The most notable are white Southerners, long the strongest of Democratic supporters, who have become the strongest of presidential Republicans. The oldest voters, long the most reliable Republicans, are now the least likely to go for the GOP. Men and women, who until a decade ago voted almost identically, differ significantly: Women are relatively more Democratic, men more Republican.
The mix of issues differs from that of the New Deal period, and the Democrats' public philosophy has lost favor.
The Republicans are the majority party in presidential elections - because their public philosophy is ascendant.
Dealignment - the weakening of voters' ties to the parties - distinguishes the current partisan competition from all previous ones.
For well over a decade now the new alignment has displayed a split personality: one face evident in presidential voting, another in state and local contests.
Michael Dukakis won the black vote in 1988 by the kind of margin that has been familiar since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s - by 86 percent to 12 percent, according to the CBS News/New York Times election survey of 11,645 voters. Whites, in contrast, strongly backed George Bush.
The most striking feature of this vote Nov. 8 was the extent to which the Republicans' share among whites in the South exceeded that in the rest of the country. According to the election day polls of NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, for example, Mr. Bush received 57 percent of the white vote nationally - but his margins in the South ranged from a low of 63 percent in Florida to a high of 80 percent in Mississippi. In the New Deal era, white Southerners' overwhelming support for the national Democratic Party had two main sources: racial tensions and memories, reaching back to the Civil War; and in fact they were then the most liberal - i.e., supporting the New Deal policy - regional group in the country. In the contemporary alignment, things have been almost exactly reversed. White Southerners have become the most Republican regional group in presidential voting because of the racial division that finds blacks overwhelmingly Democratic, and because they are now the most conservative regional group.
The election-day poll data show that the pattern of voting among Hispanics evident in recent past elections persisted almost entirely unchanged in 1988. Nationally, the GOP is the minority party among the nation's Hispanic voters, but it gets a healthy minority share. And one group of Hispanics, those of Cuban background, concentrated in Florida, is heavily Republican.
For a decade now the Republicans have been beating the Democrats in their competition for the support of new voters. This is important because, studies show, realignments involve not so much shifts among older voters, who have long political memories and experience, as the movement of those just beginning to form partisan attachments in a new political era. Today, voters in their late teens and 20s identify with the GOP in greater proportions than do any other age group.
Preelection polls in 1988 showed Bush getting his biggest margins over Mr. Dukakis among the young, but the election-day surveys did not find this. Age-related differences in voting were not significant. The reason for this discrepancy between preelection poll findings and actual results was made clear by a survey that CBS News and the New York Times conducted Nov. 10-16. It found that young people, always the group least likely to vote, had an especially low turnout this year. Indeed, two-fifths of all nonvoters in the country were under 30.
The ``gender gap'' is of interest here as an example of group divisions not evident in previous eras. Realignments occur, of course, when old divisions fade while new ones appear, reflecting changing social needs and circumstances. In the wake of big gender-related shifts, which included a surge of women into the labor force, polls in the 1970s began showing differences of opinion between men and women on a range of policy questions.
This year the CBS News/New York Times exit poll put the gender gap at 15 percentage points: Men favored Bush over Dukakis by a 16-percentage-point margin, women by just one percentage point. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll put the gap at 14 points. Public philosophy
Campaign '88 got a little silly at times, with heated exchanges about ``the L word'' and endless speculation about how Dukakis should have responded to the charge that (shudder) ... he was a liberal. Underlying the fun and games, however, was a serious message: New Deal liberalism was a majoritarian public philosophy.
This says nothing about who's right and who's wrong; it's a matter of votes. The Democrats' call for more government simply found higher support in the 1930s and '40s than it does in the 1980s. And what we call the ``social issues,'' scarcely a factor in New Deal balloting, are an important part of the liberal-conservative divide today.
The configuration of American opinion on questions like crime, school prayer, abortion, ``permissiveness,'' problems in family life, and the like is enormously complex. Overall, though, the Democrats' association with the liberal side of these questions has for two decades been costing them votes. It did again Nov. 8. The Republican majority
Democrats are again debating the ``lessons'' of the presidential balloting. Did we just run a bad campaign, or is our problem deeper? One lesson should by now be clear: They are the minority party in contemporary presidential politics.
Does this mean Dukakis could not have won? No - no more than one could say that Democrat Woodrow Wilson could not win in 1912 and 1916, when the Republicans were the majority party. Minority status simply means that the party begins each contest with an underlying disadvantage: The regular alignment of groups and cut of issues favors its opponents.
When an out-of-power minority must contend for the presidency in a period of peace and relative prosperity, it is likely to lose. That was the Democrats' problem in 1988. The election results were not inevitable, but they were both likely and predictable. Bush's final margin of roughly 8 percentage points seems to be at the low end of the range. Polls suggest that a higher turnout would have resulted in a bigger Republican margin.
The New Deal realignment was accompanied by an unambiguous strengthening of Democratic Party loyalties across the electorate. In contrast, the present one finds more and more people splitting their tickets. Party ties count for less today than at any point since a mature party system took shape in the 1830s.
In the case of less visible offices, such as members of Congress, where most voters know little about the candidates' records and incumbents enjoy prodigious advantages over their challengers, the precipitous decline of party voting has resulted in an extraordinarily uncompetitive set of results. Incumbents now routinely win these contests by overwhelming margins. Only 68 percent of Republicans said they voted for the Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives Nov. 8; just 73 percent of Democrats voted for the Democratic nominee. Incumbency, not party, is the decisive element.
The New Deal realignment was as complete and decisive as it was rapid. By 1936 the Democrats were unquestionably the majority party at all levels: They ``owned'' the presidency, dominated the US Congress, held sway in the statehouses, and had a substantial lead in party identification.
Today's realignment is anything but complete, as data from the Nov. 8 balloting again reminded us. Bush won strongly, carrying 40 states and 426 electoral votes; but the Democrats retained their ample majorities in Congress and the statehouses.
Divided results mean that the Republicans have a power base in the presidency, the Democrats a base in Congress. But they do not have anything much to say about the silliest of all our election-related debates - ``Who has the mandate?''
As we have seen, congressional voting revolves around advantages of incumbency. With a seemingly permanent lock on the House of Representatives, Democratic congressional incumbents now enjoy enormous advantage in special-interest money. This year, confounding the story of Republicans as plutocrats, political-action committees backed Democratic House candidates over Republicans by a margin of 2 to 1.
We are now hearing that Bush's victory was nothing like the clear policy endorsement Ronald Reagan's victories represented. In 1984, however, reflecting the then-current tone of press commentary, the New York Times headline wrap-up read: ``Poll finds Reagan failed to obtain a policy mandate.'' The story continued: ``President Reagan's lonely landslide is a personal victory with little precise policy mandate or clear ideological underpinning....''
The Republicans, running as a conservative party, have won the presidency five of the last six times, by a cumulative margin of 11 percentage points over their Democratic opposition. This is certainly not the chance product of various short-term forces, such as how individual campaigns are run. Rather, it represents an expression of opinion on the parties' stands on national issues as decisive as was that of the New Deal years.