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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

2008 and the Time for a Change Factor

By Alan Abramowitz
Democrats can’t win by mobilizing the base alone–they need a candidate and a message with broader, at least slightly broader, appeal. Still, Kerry did not do badly for a Massachusetts liberal. This was no 1984 or even 1988. Only a 3 point margin in the popular vote and with another 150,000 votes in Ohio, Kerry would have won the electoral vote. (That’s kind of a scary thought though. The electoral college could really misfire pretty badly, much worse than in 2000, and in either direction.)
2008 really should be a better chance for Dems to win the White House if we have a strong candidate and a strong message. Here’s why–the time for change factor kicks in for us. And it’s pretty big. Since WW II there have been 7 presidential elections in which a party had held the White House for just one term. The incumbent party’s candidate won 6 out of 7 (only Carter lost) with an average popular vote margin of 11.6 percent. There have been 8 elections in which a party had held the White House for two terms or more. The incumbent party’s candidate won only 2 and lost 6 with an average popular vote margin of -0.9 percent. This pattern goes all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century and the “time for change” factor has a significant effect on the outcomes of presidential elections even when you control for the incumbent president’s popularity and the state of the economy–there is about a 5 point penalty if you’ve held the White House for 8 years or longer. Add that 5 points to Kerry’s 2004 total, and you win easily.

27 comments on “2008 and the Time for a Change Factor

  1. mark alan on

    First off, as a devoted fan of both the book and this website, I agree with Max.
    Ruy and Alan, would you pleassssssssse critic what was being said by you two the weeks and days before the election. It is time for some honesty and evaluation! Before I hear anymore positive pie in the sky stuff we need to look seriously at went wrong with your analysis and then what went wrong in this election.
    So Ruy and Alan
    Respond to the following which you preached:
    The incumbant 50% rule
    The undecidededs will breck for the challenger.
    The last polling # for a President, is the highest that he will recieve.
    Gallup’s polling techniques are way off.
    Republican ID could not possibly have increased 5 to 10%
    Large turnout equals Democratic win.
    I and several of your fans needs some answers to these questions, or you loose credibility!
    Give it a shot!

  2. Spectator Consumer on

    Bill Richardson as VP(not Pres) is the key to immediate success in ’08. We got something like 55 percent of the Hispanic vote, but we can do much better, and quickly with Richardson. Florida and AZ, would be great places to pick up the hispanic vote, probably enough to make the difference. 2008 will see McCain or Jeb, probably Jeb as the opponent Richardson as a candidate only makes sense if they don’t team up(I assume Jeb would take FL and McCain AZ). A Jeb-McCain ticket is hard for the dems to counter, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, would have to be where the battle would be fought.
    Judging for DLC and moderate dem response, as a whole, the party has more losing to do before they give up the republican-lite mantra. At this point, it has to be more a question of pride, I mean how many times can you lose before you realize you need to throwout the playbook? These DLC and middle road Dems not only have made understandable errors thinking we should go centrist, but they’ve also refused to admit mistakes and show any ability to change tactics…
    One last note, if we have to duke it out within our party to change leadership, let’s do it now.

  3. Max on

    As I noted in an earlier comment, before we can start immersing in your hopeful analysis of why 2008 looks good, we need a fair explanation from you of why our optimistic interpretation of the polling data was so wrong. This is important.

  4. Tim on

    No offense.. but this sounds suspiciously similar to “the incumbent rule.” I know Ruy, Prof. Abramowitz and others have their little poll-watching demographic niche in all of this.. but could we get a clue here??
    Is this how we lead.. by looking at polls and gauging people’s values from surveys?? By looking at past history and divining averages?? Trends change, countries change. There’s nothing hard and fast here as we’ve seen of late. There’s reason for optimism.. but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

  5. Steve F on

    I enjoyed Ruy’s co-written piece in The New Republic today. He wrote that the Democrats need someone who “can talk to both PhDs and tractor-trailer drivers,” and that demography is on the Democrats’ side in Virginia. It seems like there’s an obvious messenger who fits this bill: Mark Warner, Virginia’s Governor. I’ve started a blog touting Warner here:

  6. Jon on

    The race Democrats can learn the most from is not the presidency, but the Kentucky senate race. This was a race the conventional wisdom said the Dems had no chance of picking up, and they came within a point of winning. How? Why? Because the Republican incumbent was painted as crazy. Think about it. Democratic candidates in Alaska, Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana, etc. thought they could win on “the issues.” Sorry, but no. Issues don’t matter and these candidates went down in flames. Mud and smears stick better than rational debate. The Republicans have known this for years. Wake up Dems!

  7. standa on

    The key blurb from DLC What Happened? …
    “They add up to the urgent need for a party strategy and message that’s strategic, not tactical; that conveys a comprehensive message, not just targeted appeals to narrow constituencies; that’s national, not regional…”
    The Dems need to undergo a major ‘shape shifting’ effort to build a populist progressive party on a national level that can engage more of America and better challenge the Bush Republican Party of Theocrats. To do this they need to covert a a few moderate Senate or House Republicans who believe The Republican Party has come loose of its moorings. This would be in addition to Lincoln Chafee (R-RI ) which is a strong possibility.
    Then the DNC/DLC should combine to form a co-chair position i.e. have an “outside game” with converted moderate Republican and an “inside game” with Howard Dean who is the best person to transform existing Dem party to a more progressive one.
    This would likely produce some significant wins in 2006 that could followed up with winning back control of all branches in 2008.
    It’s time for a bold and aggressive move or I’m afraid the Dems will fall further behind in ensuing elections.

  8. Voteaginstgbush on

    In 2008 who would we even field that would beat the McCain/Gulliani ticket? They will be extremely difficult. (assuming they are the ticket) All the talk about historical trends I think all goes out the window cause I don’t buy it anymore.
    So again I ask, George Bush won the election with all this anti-Bush sentiment out there (Iraq, Economy, Michael Moore, etc.) and he still won, he would’ve won in a landslide if it not for those anti-Bush issues. The 2008 GOP ticket will be even tougher to beat.
    I don’t think Hillary will win, she has NO shot at winning the south or the heartland. Obama will be great but I think 2008 is a little early for him.
    I can’t see Kerry running again in 2008 and if he does, I can’t see him winning. Unless there’s a new candidate that leaves the logical choice to be John Edwards for 2008 as our best hope. He has the best chance of picking up some states in the South, Midwest, any maybe Iowa, Missouri, etc.

  9. Frank on

    The election was lost because our side expected the vote to be based on logic and reality. It wasn’t; they knew how to tap into emotion and fear but we didn’t. Time to realize that choosing a candidate is like choosing soap and get better at packaging our brand. To quote Bertrand Russell “Many people would sooner die than think. And they do.”

  10. Brent Emerson on

    The Redskins lost and Nickelodeon viewers picked Kerry. Historical hocus-pocus similar your statistics. Democrats need to get their noses out of their Excel charts and start smelling the coffee!

  11. Shawn Landres on

    If this election has taught us nothing else, it is that past indicators probably no longer apply. Relying on “patterns [that go] all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century” won’t get it done. We need to restate our principles and rethink our message; relying on polling histories is a recipe for failure.

  12. JJF on

    While we should not forget that the Dems have won the popular vote three of the last four cycles, they have done very well in the Electoral College in the two losses. Depending on how IA and NM shake out, Bush will have won two elections with the LOWEST number of electoral votes (271 in 2000, 274 or a few more in 2004) since Wilson in 1916 (277) or McKinley in 1896 (271), back in the days there were fewer EVs anyway. The margins for his two wins were each razor-thin by historical standards. Don’t fall for the “broad, nationwide victory” and “mandate” garbage. There is good news: one more state can tilt the White House blue.
    That doesn’t make the loss sting any less, but looking ahead, it means the Dems don’t need a complete overhaul. We need a very targeted strategy to hold the base and gain a few incremental votes in the right places.
    Meanwhile, it is critical the Dems pickup seats in 2006. A 10-seat difference in the Senate and a 31-seat difference (w/3 undecided) in the House is too much to make up in one cycle. But with gains in the midterms, the Dems may be able to win back at least one house in ’08.

  13. chats on

    It seems to me that Karl Rove has really laid a lot of “what usually happens in this/that type of election” rules to waste. I think he and Ralph Reed have done a great job of changing the base line American electorate.
    I think time is on our side in the sense that problems Bush promised he would deal with (the budget deficit, Iraq, the spread of nuclear weapons) are not going to be getting better with time. And I’m afraid they may grow to a point where 59 million Americans can’t ignore them anymore.

  14. TJ on

    Forgive me if I’m not too receptive to this sunny outlook right now. I just got through believing it throughout the past few months, and after the shock of the election, both in the WH and Congress, it’s too soon to be delivering the same happy talk about 2008. We need some time for reflection, and a solid working strategy to deal with the impending conservative legislative onslaught. BTW, as bad as the Kerry loss is to me, it’s the Senate losses that really upset me. They were our safety valve, and that protection (filibuster) is virtually gone.

  15. Nick Simmonds on

    I think we need to count all of the absentee ballots before we concede that Bush even won a majority of the popular vote. I’ve heard that there were 5 million absentees in California, and a million in Florida, so nationwide there are probably more than enough to swing the popular vote, even though there aren’t enough in any one state to swing the electoral.

  16. bakho on

    I disagree with the contention that the Dems did not have a message. The message got burried by non-issues. A big part of the problems seems to be that the press corp does not like our candidates. They were openly hostile to Gore and it was no secret that they did not like Kerry. Can we buy them off or hire someone to keep them entertained so they don’t dump on our candidate next time? Maybe if we are more creative about presenting our message the press will pick up on it and not be so hostile.

  17. cloudy on

    WHEN ARE THE DLC Democrats going to stop spinning the polls and start facing up to how the ignoring of the flipflop spin and of the distortions in Matt Bai’s article that formed the basis of the last three weeks of the Republican press and political campaign — both of which I have detailed at length many times — point to the throwing (and not for the first time) of the election. When everyone is too busy in the media justifying the lying instead of standing up to it and pointing it out to the mass public, there’s no way victory is possible. You can’t let a flimsy spin like the flipflop issue (as devasted by, eg, Jonathan Chait in the Oct 18 New Republic ‘The Invention of Flipflop’ solidify for five months into a national cliche and expect to win. The public felt by a strong majority that the country was going in the wrong direction. There was Clarke on tape pointing out in Fahrenheit 9/11 that Bush on 9/12 was ONLY interested in Iraq and didn’t even ask about Al Qaeda and the Democrats shied away from using it. They should have had this election in the bag. They didn’t just blow it, they threw it — “reporting for duty” is one thing but duty to the Constitution and not merely to the powers that pee really needs to be primary. This is more important than whether the Demcrats should move “right” or “left” or whatever. It is the ignored elephant in the room — the justifying of the lying.
    Matt Bai put out a picture of Kerry on the war on terror tailored to match the Bush characterization of him, even though it was Kerry who proposed increasing the special forces and being much more aggressive about going after Al Qaeda. You can’t expect that the public is supposed to overcome the campaign AND THE MAINSTREAM AND LIBERAL MEDIA rolling over on issues like the flipflop spin and the Bai distortion, echoed in daily columns for the past several weeks. THIS IS THE IGNORED ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Everything else is just beating around the Bush. (I could similarly discuss the 2000 election and the 1988 election, as well as the more complex but nevertheless clear strategy of Clinton in 1993-1994) But all this stuff about “winning strategy” is meaningless as long as these issues are evaded, which they continue to be.

  18. keith on

    Hi Ruy and All
    The “time for a change” factor does give *some* room for hope, but in the meantime Bush is certain to continue the Republican mission of repealling the New Deal. The 45 Democrats we have in the Senate have *got* to act like an opposition party and obstruct their heads off–fillibuster radical judges, fillibuster right wing tax “reform”, fillibuster Social Security privatization. Bush can do a lot more damage in the next four years and now is not the time to cooperate with our nation’s demise. For the future we have to cultivate candidates who can speak the language of the working class and of socially conservative folks, but in the mean time we have to stand up or the gains our nation made when it was the Republican party that carried the “elitist” label.

  19. Spectator Consumer on

    This isn’t a plan, this is feel-good fluff. There is no reason to think Democrats will able to take the Presidency in 2008, given the another moderate approach. Again, people are suffering from two misconceptions, the first being that Clinton was a big success because he was moderate, the second is thinking there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with the party. Clinton won as a moderate because of Perot. Second, take a look around, we aren’t winning. It wasn’t just Kerry, it’s the entire party that is to blame.
    Yes we need think tanks of our own. Yes we need a serious answer to the Federalist Society. Yes we need a need focus on workers, wages and reform. Yes we need liberal tv funded(fstv) along with Air America Radio. Yes, we have to package the Democrat message as one of benefits to the voter.
    There are now 100,000 Iraqis dead thanks to our party’s incompetence in 2000, more are to follow. Sit back and go moderate? NO. Let me make this more clear, if the Party doesn’t change in a major way, you’re going to see a major defection to the Greens. We aren’t winning as a party, so why should the liberal base stick with a party that’s soldout? Why not lose with the Greens and at least stand for something? Feingold, Kucinich and the Progressive Caucus are the future. Obama-Richardson 2008! The hispanic vote would switch, Florida to Dem, possibly AZ too.

  20. Gabby Hayes on

    It’s not issues, it’s candidates.
    We put up an emotional stiff this time, same as last.
    I like and respect John Kerry. In a time less consumed by superficiality, he’d be a great presidential candidate. He speaks like a nice young man who went to finishing school, and he retains those boarding school manners.
    I also like and respect Al Gore, but he looks like he forgot to take the coathanger out of his jacket.
    Neither guy can tell a joke, and if you can’t tell a joke, you’ll never get elected president in this world any more.
    Look at Elvis.
    Bill Clinton is the Mack Daddy. It’s not an issue. It’s HIM.
    We need to forget ideology and think MESSENGER. The messenger IS the message. I don’t know who it is, but I can tell you who it isn’t. It isn’t Hillary. She’s a terrible speaker, just awful.
    I’ll offer two names of guys who can sell on TV in today’s world.
    Joe Biden and Bob Kerrey.

  21. Nick on

    Yes … and an incumbent always loses the undecideds … and an incumbent never gets more than his approval rating … and LV polls mean nothing in a big turnout year. Ruy/Alan, you guys are great analysts and observers and your optimism is inspiring. But after the other night, I’ll never believe a “rule” ever again. There are simply too many bigots out there susceptible to GOP appeals, both coded and overt. I hope you are right, but I’m snakebitten. And disgusted.

  22. M on

    Still he did better than Clinton in 92 ( a lot), so dont shoot on the pianist.
    We need to get rid of the DLC consultants and we will win. They have impaired this campaign and now are beginning to shoot the messager.
    In fact Kerry got more votes that Clinton ever did, and did barely less than Clinton did in 96 %wise.
    But his campaign was impaired by the handwringing of the Democrats. We will never win like that.

  23. Steve P on

    With all due respect, I’m a bit wary of any argument based on historical trends. Here’s why: during the run-up to this election, we heard many times that an incumbent with approval ratings below 50 percent was in serious trouble, coupled with the fact that an incumbent stuck in the mid- to upper-40s in polls was as good as gone. No such luck.
    This, of course, was the most serious misfire of historical analysis, falling by the wayside along with the Redskins win-loss record and other dubious tools of prognostication, including claims that the taller candidate always wins, and the one with the most syllables in his name always wins, and so on.
    In any case, you’re right about the need for a strong candidate and broader appeal. The talent pool looks a little thin right now with so much Republican dominance at every level of government.

  24. Bryan Parsons on

    It seems clear that the GOP won by mobilizing their base and getting a lot of their people to the polls. But this can work in reverse too. There are fissures within the Republican party, barely perceptible to the public at large. A lot of conservatives, for instance, are unhappy about the administration’s fiscal policies, though they still voted for Bush. But over time their disaffection will grow and they may stay away from the polls. Likewise, not everyone within the party shares the far right’s views on abortion, gay rights, etc. These are controversial positions, which is why the Republicans went out of their way to avoid these subjects at their convention. But the social extremists are hungry for results now and they are going to push Bush to do something that may backfire politically. I wish the Democrats could find a way to exploit these tensions, to force the Republicans to put up or shut up. I mean, watching Giuliani get cheered at the Republican convention, I couldn’t help but wonder how that crowd would respond when they see all those pictures of him marching in the Greenwich Village gay pride parade when he was mayor.

  25. Brian on

    If we depend on that analysis, we will lose for sure. 2008 will be even harder to win than 2004. There will probably be another war, driving patriotism and thus support for the president’s chosen successor. Iraq will likely be going much better than it is now. Repulicans will start the next war without the silly rumsfeldian idea of cutting troop strength in wartime and probably will reverse their policy of cutting military pay and benefits. The economy will get better because it doesn’t often stay this bad for eight straight years even with bad policy from the congress.
    And the next nominee from the Rs will be better than this one. It may be McCain or Jeb or Bill Frist, but it will be somebody even more attractive to the center than W.
    And Republicans will be secretive and sneak their policies into force without taking the consequences at the ballot box now that there is no threat of congressional or judicial oversight.
    Our nominees, on the other hand, look not only bad but worse than Kerry. Hillary is a guaranteed loser and will have coattails losing a lot more seats in congress, too. Edwards didn’t even move the results in his home state by even one percent and will be out of office four years. Wes Clark might be plausible, but he still isn’t much of a politician. Maybe he can run for governor of AR and try for president in 2012. Napolitano and Richardson couldn’t deliver their own states to Kerry but one of them might be the best hope we have. As for Dean, well, maybe we should have tried it his way in 2004 but his time to run has come and gone and his kind of Democrat won’t likely be any kind of force in 2008.


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