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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What Past Election Year Is This?

Political analysts are naturally drawn to historical analogies for current political developments. It gives us a chance to show off our knowledge, and of course, the past can be very instructive since many political dynamics are either of continuing relevance or are simply timeless.
There’s been an undercurrent in 2008 of talk about which past presidential election this one most resembles. At The New Republic today, John Judis addresses the most-discussed analogy, 1996. But he then counter-intuitively argues that the analogy, despite the favorable outcome, should not provide much comfort to Democrats, since Barack Obama has nothing like the big lead Bill Clinton had at this point twelve years ago.
As Judis notes, the main reason ’96 keeps coming up is because of the similarities between Bob Dole and John McCain, most notably their age, their personalities, their military records, their constant invocations of the past, and their rather clumsy campaign styles, both as candidates and as managers.
Beyond that, of course, the analogy quickly breaks down. Bill Clinton was an incumbent president running for re-election at a time of peace and growing prosperity. He had just earned the gratitude of the electorate by thwarting the crazier ideas of the Republican majority said electorate had elevated two years earlier, and also neatly disassociated himself from the less popular ideological tendencies of his own party on a variety of fronts, most notably by signing (in the middle of the general election campaign) controversial but very popular welfare reform legislation. He also benefitted from a significant third-party candidacy that split the anti-incumbent vote. Nearly everything about the political climate that year was different from this one.
Finally, the partisan dynamics in 1996 were not nearly as favorable to Clinton as those today favoring Obama. His re-election was more a personal endorsement and a rejection of GOP hegemony than any pro-Democratic trend.
Another analogy you hear (I’ve cited it myself on occasion) is 1980, a big “change” election. While John McCain is not, like Jimmy Carter, an incumbent with a lot of problems, he’s close enough to the actual incumbent and his deeply unpopular views and record to get very contaminated by him. And Barack Obama, like Ronald Reagan, is a candidate whose main challenge seems to be overcoming a relatively low threshold of acceptability by an electorate that wants a party change in the White House. It’s sometimes forgotten that the 1980 race was actually quite close until the last couple of weeks, when Reagan appears to have crossed that threshold and voters broke decisively in his direction (a factor that’s not relevant this year was the interesting phenomenon of a once-powerful third-party candidacy, that of John Anderson, whose shrinking base of support changed during the campaign from center-right to center-left). All in all, 1980 is a very reassuring scenario given Obama’s resources and skills in an even more change-oriented year.
Still another analogy sometimes cited–mainly by Republicans but also by a few panicky Democrats–is 1988, when Ronald Reagan’s successor reversed a huge Democratic lead and trounced Mike Dukakis, who let himself be defined as a cultural elitist with no qualifications to become Commander-in-Chief. While 1988 is an eternal reminder of the power of negative campaigning (when it’s ignored by its target), conditions in the country in 1988 weren’t remotely as troubling for the incumbent party as they are now. And any comparison of Dukakis and Obama as personally appealing political figures doesn’t pass the laugh test.
The analogy that’s scariest for Democrats is 1976. Two years after a major Democratic “wave” election, a Republican candidate who had managed to somewhat distance himself from a vastly unpopular two-term incumbent came very close to beating a charismatic Democratic outsider with a short resume and personal traits and associations that troubled some voters. And in fact, the only thing that saved Jimmy Carter from defeat was his powerful homeboy appeal in the South, where he won the bulk of former Wallace voters, most of whom probably had no business voting for a Democratic presidential candidate.
The economy in 1976 was in deep trouble, and the Republican candidate then didn’t have much of a grip on what to do about it (viz. Ford’s feckless “Whip Inflation Now” campaign). While there was not a war on in 1976, the Vietnam disaster, whose messy and disturbing end occurred on Ford’s watch, was a very recent memory. Ford, like McCain, had a lot of issues with unhappy conservatives; indeed, he nearly lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan, who, unlike McCain’s conservative primary rivals, pretty much sat on his hands during the general election. And while Ford did a good job of presenting himself as a post-Nixon, healing figure, his pardon of Nixon tied him to his predecessor much as McCain has tied himself to so many Bush policies.
Still, Ford nearly won. The main reason to reject the 1976 analogy is that the country was in a period of ideological realignment that gave any Republican candidate strengths that were temporarily obscured by Watergate and the 1974 Democratic landslide. The Ford-Carter race was, after all, preceded and succeeded by Republican landslide wins (followed by two more landslide wins). That doesn’t seem to be the trend-line today. Moreover, Ford did benefit as well as suffer from his incumbency, and Carter had nothing like Barack Obama’s financial resources and trend-setting campaign organization.
I’d be remiss in failing to note that the most popular analogies among conventional political analysts are 2000 and 2004, those razor-close general elections that turned on a variety of factors in specific states, and in the former contest, in the Supreme Court of the United States. So much has changed since 2000 and 2004 that while the outcome may be as close this year as in the recent past, the election dynamics are very different. McCain may be running for “Bush’s third term,” but his campaign persona is different, and few would argue that Obama is just like Al Gore or John Kerry.
All in all, there’s not really any overwhelming evidence that 2008 is actually 1996, 1980, 1988, 976, 2000 or 2004, though I’d argue that 1980 comes closest to reflecting this year’s dynamics, with 1996 being a possible analogy if John McCain continues to act like Bob Dole.
Let’s hope I’m right about that, since either scenario would portend a big Obama win.

One comment on “What Past Election Year Is This?

  1. Cugel on

    While it’s interesting to compare elections to the past, in truth there are too many differences.
    Basic electoral stability requires large stable voting blocks. The FDR coalition depended on a strange mix of racist Southern whites and working class northerners.
    There just isn’t any such stable voting blocks today. When Republicans inherited the Solid South that gave them the ascendancy for a generation, but that’s over. They wound up completely losing the Northeast (which used to be reliably Republican), the West coast and upper-Midwest, and now the West (Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, even Montana) are going fast.
    The South today is only beginning to emerge from it’s resentment at forced integration and desire to punish Democrats for ending Jim Crow. That trauma is starting to recede as older whites die.
    But, the real changes can only come as America becomes a majority-minority country. If Christian married white men and women had anything to say about it, Republicans would win every single election by at least 10 points.
    This simple fact dominated elections from 1968 to 2005. They still haven’t changed their minds much, but as their percentage of the population keeps declining that matters less and less.
    At some point, Republicans will have to abandon most of the positions that alienate minorities — opposition to government programs, immigration and social welfare, rather like Republicans in the 50’s had to finally give up fighting Social Security.
    It was only when they realized they weren’t obligated to LIKE Social Security or increase benefits, but they’d better leave it alone that voters let them win.
    Same thing in the future. Republicans will have a chance to regain their majority coalition only when they abandon most of the “nativist” philosophies and xenophobia, covert appeals to racism (e.g. blaming Katrina victims, and later comparing them unfavorably with the “heoric” (white) flood victims of Iowa, etc.)
    The problem is that nativists are an important (and possibly growing — among white Republicans) voting block, so abandoning them isn’t possible. And they won’t stay quiet. So they build resentment among minorities who feel threatened by their belligerence and intolerance.


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