THE unsung story of the 1988 presidential election may lie in two related developments: the tentative emergence of a new and potentially viable future Democratic coalition, and the impressive evidence of shifting relationships in the Electoral College. These could be important changes. It's been a long time - reaching back to the 1960s - since the last coalition (the 1968-88 Republican presidential majority) started evolving. Today, it's precisely this established GOP pattern that is getting late middle-aged, having prevailed five times in the last six elections. All of which means it's time for voting specialists to begin looking for signs and hints of the next upheaval. The current GOP national coalition, after all, started giving hints of its emergence back in 1960 and '64. Four years later, Republicans finally won, later fusing the 1968 Richard Nixon and George Wallace electorates in 1972.
The 1980-84 Reagan coalition, in fact, was mostly a follow-through on the 1968-72 Nixon coalition, drawing on the same swing groups - white Southerners, Northern ethnics, ``Joe Six-Packs,'' and religious fundamentalists. All of those constituencies were rallied in equally large or larger numbers against George McGovern in 1972, as they would be against Walter Mondale in 1984.
In turn, 1988 would call up a strategic d'ej`a vu. To hold the White House, even with a reduced vote share, Vice-President George Bush had to try to camouflage his own antecedents in the Republican Party's ``establishment'' wing and wrap himself in latter-day Wallace imagery of pork rinds, country music halls, flag factories, and police precincts. To some extent, at least, he did succeed in resurrecting the cultural, law-and-order, and patriotic-issues context critical to the original formation of the post-1968 Republican presidential coalition.
Even so, with just 53.8 percent of the 1988 vote, George Bush's success was only partial. Had the Democrats understood the new tides of 1988, Michael Dukakis and his strategists would have done better in managing their new opportunities in both coalition-building and electoral vote tactics. As things turned out, here are the emerging circumstances Democrats will have to confront again - and understand - in 1992.
It's easy to perceive the outline of a winning Democratic coalition in the Nov. 8 returns. Join most of the Northeast with the Pacific Coast and most of the Midwest, and you basically have it. Even Mr. Dukakis laid more groundwork than his failed campaign suggests.
Besides carrying New York and Massachusetts, Dukakis broke away four Midwestern and Pacific states - Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington - that went Republican in one or both of the tight 1968 and 1976 elections back in the early days of GOP presidential hegemony. In addition, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, and California were all surprisingly close, reinforcing the obvious regional shape of the Democratic coalitional framework: the Northeast, the Pacific, and the Midwest. Taken together, these 19 states have 277 electoral votes, seven over the necessary majority, and only Ohio and Michigan were neither close nor in Dukakis's camp. The numbers will change by 1992 but not enough to invalidate the new geography.
Other states that were also tight could fatten the margin, including Vermont, South Dakota, Montana, and New Mexico. So could others where Dukakis got only 43 to 45 percent in 1988. Probable keys: a heavy emphasis on swing states in the Maryland-West Virginia-Ohio- Kentucky-Tennessee-Missouri corridor and a candidate (possibly even from that region) not vulnerable to charges of stereotyped cultural and foreign policy liberalism. Populist economics, however, might be a distinct asset - especially if the economy has slumped.
The possibility that this strategy can work is no abstraction. The truth is, the configurations of party Electoral College opportunity have changed so much that the modified Northern strategy actually came within 700,000 votes of electing Dukakis (his second-rate campaign notwithstanding) last month.
At this point, the careful election-watcher will say that's impossible, because Dukakis lost by 7 million votes. Yes he did, but the Electoral College is now so tricky for the Republicans that, as U.S. News & World Report has noted, a shift of 700,000 votes (in close states like California, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, et al.) would have given Dukakis an Electoral College majority, although Mr. Bush would still have had a huge popular vote majority.
The GOP's emerging strategic conundrum is very simple: Its presidential coalition is now overconcentrated in the South and eroding on its Northern fringes, and the Republican vote is maldistributed accordingly. On Nov. 8, Bush drew slightly under 54 percent of the popular vote, but if he'd taken just 52 percent, his Electoral College victory would have been in doubt. That minor two-point drop would have overturned narrow GOP margins and created Democratic ones in California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, and Maryland. Had Bush dropped to just 50.1 percent of the popular vote, he would have lost in the Electoral College.
Thus the emerging Democratic opportunity. GOP presidential voting patterns now look to be so top-heavy in the South that Democrats can probably take an Electoral College majority by winning 49 percent of the national popular vote, but meanwhile enjoying narrow regional majorities in the Northeast, Mideast, and Pacific. And if they can get that national percentage up to 50 percent, the party of Dukakis will make two new discoveries: that there is now a potential Democratic bias in the Electoral College in lieu of a Republican lock, and that they can actually elect a president.