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  Talk Elections
  Presidential Elections - Analysis and Discussion
  Presidential Election Trends (Moderator: Virginiá)
  An Outsider's Analysis of the 2008 Election
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Author Topic: An Outsider's Analysis of the 2008 Election  (Read 1002 times)
Landslide Lyndon
px75
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« on: April 27, 2009, 05:12:32 pm »
« edited: April 27, 2009, 05:14:31 pm by px75 »

I'm sure we have all read the op-eds and editorials of the so called experts during the past months about the 2008 presidential election and it's future implications. Here I take the liberty to cross-post the detailed look of a friend of mine. He is not a professional journalist and has absolutely no proffesional association with politics. He is just a guy from NYC who follows the news closely.

I found his analysis extremely interesting and I hope that by putting it here it will provide some more food for thought.
  

What Happened Last Week, And Why

by Mister Tee


For a few weeks now I’ve been wanting to put down on virtual paper just why I was so convinced (some might say, smug) all year that this election would be an easy Democratic victory, as well as a major watershed/potentially realigning political event.  I resisted setting it down in the days leading to the voting; it seemed just the sort of hubristic act the gods would choose to punish in a horrible, unforeseen way – a fate I was not willing to tempt. But now that the results – give or take a few Senate seats – are safely in the bank, let me give it a try.

As Damien mentioned the other day, a lot of GOPers – and pundits – have been speaking about the economic meltdown as some sort of perfect storm, which by itself took down the McCain campaign effort.  I’m not going to dismiss the importance of the September financial crisis to the final outcome; it clearly had impact.  But I want to make the argument that, while this election may well have represented a perfect political storm, it was one of far larger dimension, and one that had been building much longer than most of our official historical thinkers seem to think, or are at least willing to articulate.

Presidential elections are decided roughly along two parallel levels.  The first is by coalition: over the last 180 years we’ve seen rough dominance by, starting in 1828, the Andrew Jackson coalition, reflecting the rise of  agrarian populism; the Lincoln coalition, ignited by the Civil War; the McKinley coalition, set off by the Panic of 1893 and reflecting the onset of the industrial revolution; the Roosevelt coalition, sparked by the Great Depression, enhanced by World War II, and powered by the creation of the American middle class; and the Nixon/Reagan coalition, formed in opposition to the Civil Rights movement and the cultural changes in the country that arose in the Vietnam years.

The second, closer-in level determining elections is the success/failure of an individual presidential administration.  Every four years, the voters get their chance to vote up or down on incumbent performance, and evidence shows they weigh the choice seriously.  There are several competing models out there exploring how voters make this decision.  I’ve advocated in the past for Lichtman’s Keys to the Presidency system, which covers 13 conditions relating to the economy, foreign policy, party-building, scandal etc.; it posits that the incumbent party must be successful in at least 8 of the 13 to hold the White House.  Other systems, like Alan Abramowitz’s, are some amalgam of incumbent approval rating with election year economic conditions to judge the same thing: whether the party holds power.  Often, results from these term-specific models will be in sync with general coalition trends -- successful coalitions will generally avoid intra-party fratricide, and pursue policies popular with the nation as a whole.  But occasionally, within an otherwise successful run, a party will experience a problematic presidency and lose the White House for four or even eight years.  The Roosevelt/Taft schism of 1908 gave Woodrow Wilson two terms as president, right in the middle of an otherwise 36-year GOP run.  Truman faced serious scandal and a stalemated Korean War in ’52, giving Eisenhower eight years even though the country was still dominantly Democratic.  And Watergate brought Jimmy Carter the White House only four years after Nixon had won 49 states, and four years prior to Reagan winning 44.

It can obviously be tricky to tell the difference between the two tracks in real time, with full transitions sometimes only clear in retrospect.  This recent Republican coalition, for example, assembled in stages.  Nixon initially took advantage of a failed, schism-afflicted Democratic administration in 1968 (the South had broken off to vote for Wallace; the fight over Vietnam divided the rest of the party) and won a thin victory.  The Trickster had a very rocky first term, with heavy Congressional opposition, social unrest culminating in Kent State, and a serious recession.  But, thanks to wage and price controls, winding down the war and creating the opening to China, he ultimately achieved easy re-election.  Then, however, Watergate intruded -- fallout from the scandal led to expanded Democratic majorities in Congress and, shortly after that in 1976, Carter's winning of the presidency.  One of the two major newsmagazines described this latter event as "America's natural Democratic majority reasserting itself".  The flirtation with the GOP was considered, by many, over.

We know now that was incorrect analysis, and it should have been obvious at the time, simply from a look at the numbers.  Despite Watergate, the humiliating last-helicopter defeat in Vietnam, a two-year recession, and Reagan's bruising primary challenge, the GOP had seen its candidate lose by only a whisker -- tiny swings in OH and MS would have kept Ford on as president.   The national trend toward the GOP -- which Kevin Phillips had written about in The Emerging Republican Majority -- was obviously still operative, and it hobbled Carter every inch of the way when he assumed the presidency.  Southern conservative Democrats gave him holy hell in Congress, and when he tried to placate them, the liberal wing rebelled -- leading ultimately to the punishing Kennedy primary challenge.  The coup de grace was the Iranian revolution, which created both economic havoc (gas prices doubled in a short stretch) and an ongoing foreign policy embarrassment (the hostage crisis) -- making Carter a failure in both the long and short term metrics.  That the Republicans nominated a transformative, charismatic figure like Reagan was a further stroke of good fortune for them in a couldn't-lose year.  Election Night 1980 came, and Reagan swept through the electoral college; no one doubted a GOP majority had come to fruition.  (Dems did maintain House control -- undoing a century's worth of Southern voting habits was a far slower process at the Congressional level than at the presidential -- but 75 so-called Boll Weevil Democrats voted consistently with Reagan once he took office)

And this majority maintained a firm grip through three terms; Democrats were barely on the board in those elections.  At which point, predictably, it became difficult for people to understand that this coalition, too, could one day lose its dominance.  The post-Gulf War recession finally came along to give Democrats an opening.  By late 1991, Bush the Elder -- a drab, uncharismatic successor to Reagan -- was widely held to blame for a lingering economic downturn, and seemed poised to suffer at the polls.  Yet middle-road voters remained hesitant about going back to the party they'd soundly rejected in the decade preceding.  Enter Ross Perot -- as much a cipher (and media creation) as anyone who's ever received major presidential votes -- who provided the perfect halfway house for voters unhappy with high deficits and, importantly, the social-issue conservatism of the post-Reagan GOP, but not quite ready to jump to Democrats again.  Clinton won the resulting three-way split handily, but his 43% victory had a cost: the minority-ness of it led many to consider it a fluky result, apt to be reversed in four years time.  This view was especially widely held by the DC press corps: they treated Clinton as interloper from virtually day one, and bought into right-wing spin on most every element of his presidency -- especially once that Southern Congressional realignment finally DID kick into place in 1994, costing Democrats the Senate and, for the first time in 50 years, the House.  Republicans began to openly speak of "the Bush/Clinton interregnum" between the high-flying-right years of Reagan and (they briefly assumed) Gingrich.  To them, Clinton was a sort of typo of history -- and most in DC basically agreed.

As with the GOP in the 70s, they were missing what was actually happening.  Clinton, it turned out, was more to the taste of at least a substantial chunk of Perot voters, for reasons both economic and cultural, than the ever-further-right Gingrich Congress.  And demographic changes were starting to hit the electorate: we were becoming a far less white country, and, surprise, many ethnic minorities weren't crazy about GOP pandering to angry white men -- these votes turned disproportionately Democrat.  Most significant of all, Clinton managed, according to all rating systems, a successful presidency, which brought him comfortable re-election (though, again thanks to Perot, with just barely under 50% of the vote).  His success and popularity continued through an economy-booming second term, where he was strong enough to stave off a partisan-driven impeachment effort -- one that had been largely cheered on by the still-clueless DC press corps.  

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Landslide Lyndon
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« Reply #1 on: April 27, 2009, 05:13:53 pm »

Part 2

Yet belief in a Republican presidential advantage persisted, and dominated discussion leading up to the 2000 election.  The Florida post-ballot mishegoss had an effect beyond simply dividing the country; it saved a lot of opinion people from having to defend some woefully-off-base pre-election pronouncements -- as in, Bush will win by 8 percent (Karl Rove, and a Battleground poll a few days before election), People will flock to Bush because they want to have a beer with him, and, wrong on the deepest level, Clinton only won by force of personality, his party can't win a national election.  All premises were proven wrong.  Whatever you think of what Katherine Harris wrought, it's indisputable Gore got more votes in 2000, and for the clearest of reasons: Clinton, like Reagan, had had a successful second term, and it was logical voters would opt to carry on with his successor (though by a smaller margin, as 1988 had only 3 negative Keys, where 2000 had a razor's edge 5).  Pundits tended to dismiss polls showing Gore with advantages on domestic issues (as if voters cared about them!), but sensible analysis says that's the basis on which people at least TRIED to vote that election day.

However…some crucial votes went uncounted, and, fair or not, Bush took office in 2001.  He was given far more deference from the press than Clinton had received eight years earlier, since, in their view, it was a restoration of rightful GOP rule.  My take was different from the start: I saw Bush set up to be Jimmy Carter in reverse -- elected by fluke, sailing against a growing progressive wind, and, on a temporal level, with the Keys system largely lined up against him on Inauguration Day (4 were already down or seriously leaning).  John Judis and Ruy Teixeira obviously agreed with me: in early 2002, they wrote, with deference to Kevin Phillip, The Emerging Democratic Majority, describing how electoral trends were massing to give Democrats precisely the sort of advantage the GOP had had from the 70s through the 90s.  The election of 2004 was thought by many to refute this theory -- Judis/Teixeira were indeed subject to pundit ridicule.   But this was a case of temporal circumstances briefly outweighing long-tem trends.  September 11th -- a tragic day for the country, but, politically, the bailout of bailouts -- improved Bush's fortunes just enough.  The country rallied round, shooting his approvals to unearthly levels, boosting his party in the midterms (reversing a Key that seemed lost), and supporting an at-least-initially successful war effort in Afghanistan.  A recurring argument I've heard this year past, as I've told people how favorable the election environment was for Democrats, has been, "I thought that in '04, too."  But the fact is, by the systems that measure elections, '04 wasn't remotely the same.  Bush had a united party, the success in Afghanistan, an increased Congressional majority, and substantial job growth during the election period.  Even with that, he teetered on the edge of defeat:  Kerry lost by a miniscule margin in decisive Ohio -- almost a mirror-image of what happened to Ford in '76.  The way Bush held on to the presidency was a sign of GOP weakness, not strength.   

Yet, in the weeks after the election, precisely the opposite was presented as truth.  Karl Rove sold the idea that the GOP had constructed a permanent majority.  Permanent?  They'd won by the smallest popular margin of any incumbent in history, by a wispy margin in one decisive state -- and this followed three consecutive popular losses and two electoral wipeouts.  Like Carter '76, they were clinging to the last traces of an old coalition, not building a new one.  Yet our dependable press corps ate it up, not questioning Rove's premises one bit.  (For openers, they might have asked why, if Rove was claiming to be building a McKinley-like coalition, his candidate was winning mostly the states loser William Jennings Bryan had)

Of course, no one believes this now.  Prevailing political winds finally became too much to withstand, and Bush, like Carter, had a disastrous second administration that exposed his party's weak position (Bush was more or less Carter in slow motion).  As Iraq foundered and the economy weakened, the Keys system showed the GOP with an election profile comparable to the worst in post-Civil war history: Congressional losses, lack of major achievements, foreign policy failure and no offsetting success, poor economic growth throughout the term and recession at the end, and, after the primaries, an uncharismatic non-incumbent up against one of the most eloquent speakers and devotion-inspiring candidates the Democratic party (home of Roosevelt and Kennedy) has ever yielded.  At the same time, demographics -- ethnic and generational -- continued to move the Democrats' way.  When the arc of history matches so perfectly with the verdict of the short-term systems, you can expect a tectonic shift.  Pundits may continue to point to Sarah Palin, or the Lehman-led meltdown; I'm sure they were meaningful to individual voters.  But all they did was make any already-certain election a laydown: by August, Dems had the equivalent of three-run lead in the 8th with Rivera coming on to pitch; a pinch-hit grand slam in the bottom of the 8th widened the score, but didn't determine the outcome. 

Hardcore Limbaugh choir-members are trying to frame this election as not decisive, but the more honest see what's happened: P.J. O'Rourke, Peggy Noonan and David Brooks, among other conservatives, recognize this election marks a level of change not present in '92.  And, though some mainstream pundits are pushing this silly "We're still a center-right country" theme, many more are expecting major action out of President Obama.  Something of a liberal moment is just ahead. 

How successful it is, and how long it lasts, will of course depend to a degree on Obama's performance.
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