Visions of Elections Past

There has been a Republican in the White House for the past 7 years, aided by a Republican-controlled Congress for 6 of those 7 years. This president is tremendously unpopular and has been for years. This year's Republican nominee has embraced this unpopular president and provided near 100% support of his agenda. The economy is shaky. Banks are losing money. People are getting thrown out of their homes. People are commonly shelling out more than $50 every time they go to the gas station. The nation is fighting an unpopular and mismanaged war with mounting casualties. The Democratic nominee has shattered fundraising records, is a gifted speaker, and has cobbled together the support of various disparate demographic groups.

And yet, John McCain is still in this race.

Given all the dynamics of this race and how close it is even though so many indicators suggest that this election should be a blowout, it is difficult for pundits to put a finger on just how this election will turn out. The polls and the campaign dynamics so far all suggest a blowout, a squeaker, a letdown, or an upset are all plausible.

So what's going to happen? Perhaps the clue lies in elections past, many of which mirror the 2008 campaign perfectly.

2008 will be like 1996: The clash of generations.

Barack Obama is the clear frontrunner, just like Bill Clinton was in his reelection campaign. He's youthful. He's charismatic. He's hip. And people seem to like him much like they did the sax-playing Clinton. John McCain is the underdog. He has a hard time making headlines and generating buzz despite his advantages. He has a long record of public service and served valiantly in combat. And a large part of the electorate agrees with his political philosophy. But he's old. He sounds tired. He represents the past, not the future. He's Bob Dole. If this is what 2008 boils down to, this election should be a comfortable one for Obama. It won't be a landslide and Obama might not even win a majority of the popular vote, but this election won't keep everyone on the edge of their seats like the last two elections did. Obama knows he will win. McCain knows he will lose.

2008 will be like 1992 and 2000: Spoilers crash the party.

Third-party candidacies are not rare in presidential politics, but every so often, they have a very significant impact. Ralph Nader's candidacy torpedoed Al Gore's White House bid in 2000. And Pat Buchanan gave many Republicans fits throughout the 1990s. While Ralph Nader won't garner nearly as many votes this time around, former Republican and current Libertarian nominee Bob Barr will. And Bob Barr will wreak havoc on John McCain's electoral chances in North Carolina, Colorado, and Georgia. There are even indications that Barr is hurting McCain to Obama's advantage just enough in the ruby red state of South Carolina to make Obama aides salivate.

John McCain is not the only candidate who has to worry about a gadfly candidacy. Former Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney will also be on the ballot as the Green Party nominee. She represented a district in Atlanta, thus potentially complicating Obama's dreams of taking advantage of Bob Barr's candidacy and flipping Georgia blue. However, Barr will do far more damage than McKinney in Georgia. McKinney has a very small base of support which consists mostly of Blacks, and it's hard to see why Blacks who are eager to elect the first Black (or rather, biracial) president would essentially "waste" their vote on McKinney. And given her previous run-ins with the law, it's hard to see why many voters would take her seriously.

Imagine these results on election night:

Colorado: Obama 46, McCain 44, Barr 7
Georgia: Obama 44, McCain 43, Barr 8, McKinney 1
North Carolina: Obama 46, McCain 44, Barr 6

Should this materialize, Obama would be well on his way to shellacking McCain and would have to offer Barr a position in his cabinet after Inauguration Day as a token of his appreciation.

Just like Nader, who won less than 5% of the vote nationwide, was able to ruin Al Gore's candidacy in Florida, Ross Perot caused serious heartburn for George H.W. Bush across the nation. Perot's independent bid clearly wounded George Bush and allowed Bill Clinton to win a lot of states that Democrats weren't used to winning.

2008 will be like 1980: Pass the interview first and then win in a landslide.

The country is pessimistic and desperately wants to change direction. They're fed up with the current leadership, but don't want to take a gamble on the new kid on the block until he has successfully proven himself as at least marginally competent and acceptable. This is what happened with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter was an unpopular president and the nation was in a sour mood because of the Iranian hostage crisis and oil prices, but voters were reluctant to send Reagan to the White House. After he held his own in the debates, however, undecided and independent voters flocked to the California Republican in droves.

And now 28 years later, should Obama comes across reasonably decent and knowledgeable in the debates, this fairly close election will turn into a rout. If Obama bombs in the debates, the country will simply vote for McCain because even though they may disagree with his policies, they will at least say he is ready.

It is worth noting that 2004 was another potential 1980 election as well. John Kerry had his chance to prove himself marginally acceptable as a campaigner and a candidate, but failed and narrowly lost even though the nation was already beginning to sour on George Bush and the direction of the nation. Inauthentically donning hunting gear and citing the sexuality of Dick Cheney's daughter in the final debate are two fatal mistakes that turned many voters off and sealed his fate.

2008 will be like 1960: The nailbiting beauty contest and the predecessor to "experience vs. change."

Seeing Obama and McCain side by side on television can only work to Obama's advantage just like John Kennedy was able to use the televised debates to his advantage. These debates ruined Richard Nixon because his five-o'clock shadow and sweating did not flatter him. 1960 was a very close election, but Nixon could not capitalize on the image factor. Seeing the youthful and vibrant Obama standing next to the older, tired-looking McCain will not make for good visuals at the debates.

The historic 1960 campaign shared another theme with this year's campaign: experience vs. change. Nixon was the Washington old hand with the lengthier political resume. Kennedy was youthful and fresh. Nixon argued that experience mattered. And he had a valid point. But the voters wanted "change" a little bit more.

Other candidates ran on experience this year and lost.

Chris Dodd and Joe Biden ran on experience and lost in Iowa.
Bill Richardson ran on experience and lost in New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton ran on experience and lost the nomination.

Will John McCain run on this same losing message and lose the general election?

2008 will be like 2000: The nightmare.

Barack Obama will run up the score in reliably Democratic states like New York, Illinois, and California and narrowly lose the South. The energized Black vote will make him competitive in places like South Carolina and Mississippi, but he won't be able to flip them. John McCain will steal either Michigan or Pennsylvania while narrowly defending the other Bush states, including Ohio. Obama will win the popular vote while McCain wins the electoral vote. This will be an absolute heartbreaker for the Democrats and would likely be met with calls (even from Republicans) to abandon the Electoral College altogether.

Should McCain win in 2008 just like Bush won in 2000 (by losing the popular vote), it will be interesting to see how politicians in Iraq view the results. They may use this as another reason to reject US involvement in their affairs because if politicians who don't win the most votes are able to win the presidency, they may conclude that they don't need that kind of "democracy" in their country.

2008 will be like 1988: The collapse.

2008 will be like 1988. After eight years of Republican control of the White House, the time seems right for the political pendulum to swing in favor of the Democrats. Obama is leading in all the polls and seems to be on his way to a comfortable victory this fall. But he will get tripped up like Michael Dukakis did in one of the debates or be hamstrung by an unflattering picture that makes voters take him less seriously. Visions of John Kerry hunting and Michael Dukakis riding in a tank swirl through everyone's heads. In this scenario, John McCain would win the presidency the same way he won the nomination--by not losing it.

2008 will be like 2004: Anti-Republican sentiment is overrated.

By most media accounts, George Bush was supposed to lose in 2004. He was the bumbling tough-talker who didn't know how to lead the nation. His 9-11 halo was fading and people were beginning to have doubts about Iraq. John Kerry was supposed to provide voters with the opportunity to "get it right" this time and show that Bush's election in 2000 was a fluke.

But Bush won, and the Republicans expanded their majorities in both houses of Congress. People attributed Bush's victory to a weak Democratic candidate or shenanigans in Ohio. But what about the possibility that there was a silent majority of voters who actually liked President Bush and/or his policies?

Four years later, the media and polls are showing the same sentiments that buoyed Kerry. People lampoon Obama as the new messiah. He's not only the presumptive Democratic nominee, but also the presumptive 44th president. People are tired of Republicans, the Bush brand, and conservative principles. So Obama should have this election in the bag. November should merely be a coronation, right? Right?

And then McCain methodically cobbles together enough states to win in November and leaves Democrats, liberals, and the international community wondering yet again how the Republicans pulled this out. It might not be because Obama is weak or because his ideas weren't that popular. It might just be a matter of John McCain and conservatism being underestimated.

The fact that 2008 could plausibly turn out like any of these previous elections makes this election so difficult to handicap. All the indicators seem to favor an Obama victory, but a rookie mistake, a gadfly third-party candidacy, a mishandled debate question, poor stage presence, or the specter of a 2000 repeat are all very real prospects that could throw any and all political analysis and punditry out the window.

What an amazing campaign.

5 comment(s):

Garth Sullivan said...

i read an interesting article that said there may be a hidden bump for obama in all of the polls because pollsters don't survey cell phone only users and that this demographic should vote overwhelmingly for obama.

apparently, the autodialing machines pollsters use are incompatible with cell phones that have different restrictions.

Freadom said...

Awesome post. Love the political history tie in. Nothing more needs to be said.

Anonymous said...

To make every vote in every state politically relevant and equal in presidential elections, support the National Popular Vote bill.

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The National Popular Vote bill has been approved by 20 legislative chambers (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont). It has been enacted into law in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states have 50 (19%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring this legislation into effect.

see www.NationalPopularVote.com

Anthony Palmer said...

Mr. Sullivan,

I've heard stories about the undersampling of younger and urban voters who are more likely to be Democrats and more likely to use cell phones or internet phones than traditional landlines, but I'm not so sure it makes a difference because younger voters tend to participate in lower numbers than elderly voters. Maybe this year will be different. Thanks for the comment.



Many thanks. This election could reasonably turn out like any of these past elections, each with wildly different results.



I've heard of this national popular vote bill or electoral college compact. I think it's a good idea, but different legislatures are dragging their feet with it. I think if John Kerry won in 2004, he would have been an unpopular president like GWB was in 2000. Then Republicans would have jumped on the "ditch the Electoral College" train. Until that happens, I'd expect most of the advocates of ditching the Electoral College to be liberals and Democrats who are still branded as being sore losers from 2000. I think the EC serves a useful purpose, but I don't agree with the winner take all aspect of it. I'd support allocating electoral votes based on a politician's winning percentage in each state. The problem with this view, however, is that you could have a close election in which nobody gets a majority of EC votes and the third party candidate could become a kingmaker. But that seems unlikely. Thanks for the insight and the link!

Brett said...

Some of those scenarios sound possible, some of them not so possible Anthony. I doubt it's a "1996 example", simply because Bill Clinton possessing the incumbency advantage in American politics may have heavily distorted examinations of it.

I'm also skeptical of the 2004 scenario. It's possible, but the Republican demographics aren't as unified as they were back then; the Christian Right was still a consolidated political power, and Bush still had reasonably high popularity ratings.

If it will be anything, it will probably be the Dukakis example, although there is one crucial difference - it's unlikely that Obama will flub the reaction to a smear the way Dukakis did.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.