A Brief History of Game-Changing Elections
[note: this is an update/re-write/mash-up of two posts I wrote 4 years ago. See here and here for original posts.]
In the aftermath of most elections, there is a debate about its long-term meaning. Specifically: does the outcome of this election mean certain political and demographic forces have aligned in such a way that the victorious party has built an enduring majority and will win many more elections?
Right now, Democrats hope (and Republicans fear) that the reelection of Barack Obama - and the specific demographic conditions that made that reelection possible - are the beginning of sustainable and durable coalition.
But we’ve been here before, haven’t we?
In 2004, George W. Bush won a relatively comfortable victory (at least compared to 2000) and a library’s worth of articles poured praise on Karl Rove, who had seemingly discovered the key to lasting Republican dominance: a passionate organized base that cares about family values. But only four years later, the Republicans lost the White House, and eight years later are in disarray. So much for lasting Republican dominance.
In 1992 Bill Clinton supposedly changed the game. A sax-playing Southern baby boomer who could name all four Beatles beat an old Washington hand who’d fought in WWII, ending 12 straight years of Republicans in the White House. A new era had begun! But by the time a quite tainted but still-popular Clinton left office, the Republicans had taken the House, the Senate, the White House, and the majority of governorships. So much for new eras.
Even the Reagan Revolution wasn’t quite as revolutionary as it’s made to seem. Reagan won an astounding 49 state victory in 1984 and a now-unthinkable 525-13 electoral college victory. You didn't have to be Nate Silver to call that election. But 4 years after the Gipper left office the Democrats had the White House back. So much for revolutions.
Only 3 elections in American history have been truly game changing, in the sense that the victory represented a political realignment that was sustained for decades after. You may have heard of the three gentlemen who won those elections: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.
Thomas Jefferson - 1800
Now that was a messy election. First of all, as brilliant as the Founders were, they hadn’t quite figured out all this electoral college stuff yet, so when Jefferson’s running mate Aaron Burr* technically had as many electoral college votes as Jefferson, he made a play for the White House. It took a while to sort out, but Jefferson eventually took the oath and went on to create a sustainable majority that lasted for decades.
* While in office, VP Burr killed the former Treasury Secretary, attempted to crown himself emperor of Mexico, and got arrested for treason. And people think Biden's a loose cannon!
Jefferson’s Republicans (not the same as today’s) had so thoroughly destroyed their political competitors, the Federalists, that his hand-picked successors (Madison and Monroe) took the White House for 16 more years, and by the time John Quincy Adams, the son of the last Federalist President, took office, even he was a Republican. The Federalist Party was dead.
That was a sea change election.
Abraham Lincoln - 1860
The remarkable thing about this election is that Lincoln's party, the Republicans (this one is the same as today), was fairly new. It grew out of the ashes of the Whig party and ran its first Presidential candidate in 1856. They won their first Presidential election - barely - in 1860. By the summer of 1864 Lincoln's reelection looked unlikely, and the idea of lasting Republican dominance - or even a lasting Republican party - seemed improbable.
But Atlanta fell in early September, assuring Lincoln's reelection. And then what a run the GOP went on. From 1860 to 1932 the White House was virtually the sole property of the Republican Party, as Grover Cleveland* was the only Democrat to win a head-to-head election against a Republican.
* And he did it twice; Cleveland was an outstanding politician, winning the popular vote 3 times despite being named Grover
Can you imagine that today? A new party is formed, takes the White House in less than a decade, and holds it for nearly a century?
Franklin Roosevelt - 1932
Democrats looking for signs of a long fruitful electoral run should start here. FDR came into office much as Barack Obama did: a long period of Republican domination ended with a Wall Street calamity, thrusting a Democrat with profound faith in government action into office. The Democrat is reelected 4 years later, after the passage of huge federal programs and despite a still struggling economy.
In FDR's case, the Democrats went on to win 7 of the next 9 elections (losing only to war hero Eisenhower). It took LBJ's Vietnam catastrophe to end this run.
Is Obama’s Win Sustainable?
Have the Democrats won that kind of election?
When analyzing whether an election has created genuine political realignment, you need to see if the conditions are easy to duplicate. And certain demographic trends, particularly the growing importance of the Hispanic vote, suggest it is possible.
And, as I hope to explore in a later post, the Republicans are out of step with the majority on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, and this situation will only worsen. If the Republicans don't learn how to move to the center on social issues, they are going to have a hard time getting my kids' vote.
But several other conditions will be nearly impossible to duplicate in future elections.
The first is Obama’s charismatic hold on the electorate. He's not quite the rock star he was in 2008, but remains enormously popular, particularly with African-Americans and 18-35 year-olds. That kind of star power comes along very rarely. Reagan had it. Kennedy had it. Its a wonderful thing for a particular candidate to possess, but it is not a quality to build a sustainable majority on.
Can Joe Biden duplicate that in 2016? Hillary Clinton? If you’re thinking Al Gore, remember that while he was briefly the world’s most improbable movie star and the winner of the increasingly ridiculous Nobel Peace Prize, he’s already failed in the role of filling the shoes of a charismatic predecessor.
The second thing the Dems won’t be able to duplicate is the Blame Dubya tactic. A majority of voters in exit polls still blame George W. Bush for our current economic woes. By 2016, the Democrats will own the economy.
And finally, there is this interesting trivial fact: all but 2 reelected Presidents in U.S. history have seen their popular vote percentage increase on reelection. The first, Andrew Jackson, only declined because a 3rd party candidacy won 8% of the vote.
And the second, of course, is Barack Obama. Put differently, it was the weakest reelection win in U.S. history, suggesting voters were saying, "Okay, we'll give you 4 more years. But if things haven't improved by 2016..."
And that the key, isn't it?
It is a very rare thing to build a sustainable majority and it cannot be built on personality. His administrations have to govern with performance.
That's how lasting majorities are built.