A perspective on the '08 race 8 weeks out
Mitch Perry about about 5 years ago
With approximately 8 weeks to go in this presidential election, the addition of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin has given a sudden (if perhaps only ephemeral) boost to John McCain’s chances of winning the White House in November.
Because the GOP Vice Presidential nominee has only been on the national scene for a couple of weeks now, it remains to be seen if she will become the ultimate “game changer” that GOP enthusiasts claim. Much vetting by the American public and media remains. But she has shaken up the race, if for no other reason given the public and the press something new to talk about (As opposed to the issues, which McCain campaign manager Rick Davis bluntly confessed last week is not what American are voting on in November).
But perhaps her addition to the campaign will silence those pundits who keep on asking why Barack Obama doesn’t have a bigger lead in the race (according to national polls), considering that 81 percent of Americans told the NY Times earlier this summer that the country was going in the wrong direction.
Obama spokespeople always reply to that query by saying that the electorate is essentially divided, and that most of our national elections are close races. And they’re absolutely right about that.
But what has also proven to be true for 4 decades now is that, for whatever reason, Republicans in many cases find a way to win these elections, even if they don’t have the better candidate or better arguments on their side.
In the last 40 years, Democrats have only won the White House three times in 10 elections. And only once (Jimmy Carter in 1976), did their candidate actually get over 50% of the popular vote. Just once!
I’m not sure I know all the reasons for that, but when I see that statistic, it makes more sense to me why Obama isn’t leading by more than a few points (or even leading, depending on current polls).
Historians and political analysts have compared this year to 1980, and the Carter/Ronald Reagan race. That’s when you had the unpopular incumbent (Carter) against an “exciting” charismatic politician who was derided by his opponents as being out of the mainstream (Reagan, the 2 time Governor of California who had just missed winning the nomination in 1976).
The theory goes that that was a close race until the one and only debate held late in the campaign – and after Reagan passed that test, undecided’s, (and a decent proportion of what would become known as “Reagan Democrats”) went for the Gipper.
But I’d like to hearken back to 1976 for my analogy to this political year. Let me explain: As were repeatedly told, the GOP hasn’t been this low in stature with the American public since post Watergate, and that’s probably true.
In 1974, Democrats won 49 seats in Congressional elections, a fiery rebuke to the GOP after Watergate broke and Richard Nixon resigned. That’s very similar to 2006, when Democrats stunningly took back the House and The Senate, in large part because of dissatisfaction with Republican incompetence, first and foremost being George W. Bush’s decision and running of the Iraq war.
So, this year has augured well for any generic Democrat vs. a generic Republican, as those polls have shown all year long.
But I dare say that whether the candidate was Hillary Clinton, or Obama, the public hones in on the persona of the candidate. And that goes for John McCain as well. Based on his compelling biography and his gritty run against George W. Bush in 2000, McCain’s public persona amongst Democrats and independents has always ranked higher than many other Republicans (After McCain thrashed Bush in New Hampshire in January of 2000, SF Examiner columnist Rob Morse wrote about how San Francisco Democrats were excited to vote for him in California’s open primary that March).
There’s also the complicated issue of race, which I believe has a factor in this election that rarely is discussed in mainstream periodicals. More on that later. But in any event, I believe that’s why Obama hasn’t led by a greater margin so far.
But back to the ’76 analogy. After the Democratic Convention in New York City that summer, Jimmy Carter had a 33 (!) point lead over Gerald Ford, who in addition to being a Republican was leading a weak economy (Remember W.I.N. buttons?).
Carter DID win that year, but barely. The Republicans closed ranks after the Reagan supporters rallied behind Gerald Ford, and Carter won by just 2 percentage points. And again, that was the last time, 32 years ago, that Democratic candidate won more than 50% of the popular vote.
For all the excitement about Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992, they only received 43% of the vote, whereas Ross Perot took nearly 19% of it. In his boring re-election against Bob Dole 4 years later, Clinton got 49.1 percent of the vote.
The point is that even those demographics are changing; the Republican always seems to be good shape going into an election.