Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The GOP's Run

The Spanish philosopher and poet George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.” I would add that those who cannot remember history are condemned to be baffled by current events.

Take the Presidential election. There is a lot of hand-wringing among Democrats these days. They are mystified – utterly mystified – that the Republican candidate for President is even remotely competitive in this race, despite the widespread belief that the Bush Presidency has been disastrous. They are like Jets fans who can’t understand why, even after Tom Brady got hurt and the Patriots went with some near-sighted high school kid at quarterback, they still lost. (I could probably push this metaphor with a Favre/Obama comparison, but I don’t want to lose my international readers…)

When asked to explain why this race remains competitive, most Democrats have theories that range from the inherent racism of America to the treachery of Republican party operatives. I don’t quite buy into either of these theories but that is a subject for another day.
I will, however, explain why the Obama coronation has been delayed.

If you’re a regular reader of FreeTime, you've guessed my theory will be historical and statistical in nature. It’s really quite simple: in Presidential politics, the United States is Republican.

I was born in 1966, and there have been 10 Presidential elections in my lifetime. The Republican party has dominated those elections, even more than people realize. Here are the stats:

+ Republicans are 7-3.

+ Two of the Republican victories were huge landslides – Nixon in ‘72 and Reagan in ‘84.

+ Two others were near landslides – Reagan in ‘80 and Bush 41 in ’88. In each of these elections the Republican candidate received more than 400 electoral college votes.

+ Democrats, meanwhile, are 3-7.

+ None of those wins were landslides, or near-landslides. The most electoral votes won by a Democrat in my lifetime is 379 (Clinton ’96).

+ In two of those wins – the Clinton elections – the Democrat failed to win 50% of the vote. In fact, if Ross Perot doesn’t win 18% of the vote in ’92, George H.W. Bush likely wins reelection.

+ And in only one of those wins – Jimmy Carter in 1976 – did a Democrat win 50% of the vote. In 1975 Republican Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, a catastrophe for the Republican party. Still, Democrat Jimmy Carter only barely managed to eke out 50.1% of the vote and a 297-240 electoral college vote.
To sum up: Republicans win every Presidential election, sometimes by wide margins, unless some fluke event (Perot, Watergate) tips it to the Democrats.
The Lesson of ‘32
Of course, things change. From 1860, when Lincoln became the first Republican President until 1932, when FDR took office, the White House was nearly the sole property of the Republican party. During that 72 year period, Grover Cleveland was the only Democrat who won a head to head election against a Republican*. 72 years! That's as long as John McCain has been alive!

How did this extraordinary electoral run end? Calamity struck Wall Street, Democrats took the White House, and held it for 7 of the next 9 elections.
Hmmm...what was it that Santayana guy said?
* A little detail here...Lincoln, a Republican, chose Andrew Johnson, a Border State War Democrat, as his VP in 1864, to prepare for the healing with the South. Upon Lincoln's assassination, Johnson became President. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt ran a 3rd party campaign against his former VP, William Taft, which lifted Democrat Woodrow Wilson to the White House. Wilson won reelection in 1916. Republicans won the other 12 elections. All of which makes Grover Cleveland's accomplishment one of the great electoral victories in American history.
Update (9/25): I've gotten a few emails about the 2000 election, in which Al Gore out-polled George Bush in the popular vote. The score was 50,999,897 (48.4%) to 50,445,002 (48.4%), but Bush won the electoral vote.
But here's the thing about 2000. Putting aside the Florida debacle and the Supreme Court, the election was essentially a tie. But it shouldn't have been. The Democrats had an outgoing popular President. The country was at peace and seemingly prosperous. The Democratic nominee had an impressive record of public service from the military to the Senate, and was unencumbered by his predecessor's scandal; in fact, he was arguably the most effective Veep in history. The Republican nominee was the formerly ne'er-do-well son of a former President who had only recently entered public office.
The Dems should have won easily, as easily as Reagan's Veep won in '88. Instead, they lost on a questionable call in the bottom of the 16th inning.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the lessons of history...here's Larry Lessig's 12-minute view of Palin's experience alongside all the vice-presidents to date: