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Elections Aren't Won on Paper

By David Shribman

You can almost hear the Democrats singing: There's no way even we can lose the 2008 election. There's upheaval in Iraq, uncertainty in the financial markets, unease in the country. President Bush's disapproval ratings are at Richard Nixon levels. Many loyal party members think the GOP has veered off course. This is not an easy time to be a Republican.

But here's a word of caution to the Democrats and a word of perspective for the Republicans: Presidential elections are almost always easier to analyze in retrospect than in advance, and what appears to be clear 14 months before the voters go to the polls can often turn out to be muddied once the voting starts.

Though any sober politician would rather be in the Democrats' position today than in the Republicans', a Democratic victory next November is no sure bet, and a new Democratic era, powered by public revulsion of the errors of George W. Bush, is an even less certain development.

A lot of Republicans, and some Democrats, believe that a ticket headed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York or Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would be terrific for loyal Democratic constituency groups (women and blacks in particular) but might be lethal for the Democrats' general-election prospects next year. And below the top tier of Democratic candidates, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico head a group of candidates whose general-election prospects are even more modest.

That's why activists and operatives of both parties ought to pause to consider the lessons of 1976, 1988 and 2000. They are portraits of uncertainty and unexpected consequences.

The Democrats cruised to victory in 1976 not so much because former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia was so much more appealing a figure than President Gerald R. Ford but because the Republicans were so discredited by Nixon and Watergate. Democrats thought they were on the verge of a new age of power led by a new generation of Southern politicians with a new vision of government.

Instead, the Carter victory was but a small four-year hiccup in a Republican era that basically lasted from 1969 to 1993, and the party that was undergoing a rebirth wasn't the Democrats but the Republicans, who four years later nominated Ronald Reagan and underwent a complete overhaul of its philosophy of government.

Now take 1988. President Bush's father was completing two terms as vice president. He had been in the shadows of a popular president, much the way Richard Nixon had been in the shadows of Dwight Eisenhower a generation earlier. Smart people in and out of his party considered him the weakest presidential candidate in ages (that was the year Sen. Bob Dole was expected to win the GOP nomination). But by Election Day, Mr. Bush was in the victory circle, overcoming a 19-point lead held by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts.

Four years later, Mr. Bush was scrambling -- the faltering economy hurt him badly -- but the presence of Ross Perot in the presidential race had relegated the Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton, to a distant third place in the spring of 1992. So small a threat was Clinton that top Republican legal experts began examining whether, if the Arkansas governor finished behind Perot, the Democrats could lose their status as a major political party. In the end, of course, Mr. Clinton prevailed.

Vice President Albert Gore Jr., on paper at least, was a good bet in 2000. President Clinton had been impeached, to be sure, but Gore had separated himself from the president and no one thought that he had anything but shock and contempt at Clinton's personal behavior in the Oval Office. The economy was roaring, respect for America across the globe was strong and enthusiastic, the public felt good about its government. This was a terrific platform for the sitting vice president to ascend to the top job.

In truth, Mr. Gore did win the popular vote, but the wonder isn't that he lost the Electoral College after a lengthy and bitter dispute centering on contested ballots in Florida. The wonder instead was that the election, with conditions so favorable to the vice president against a governor of Texas with little domestic experience and no national security experience, was close at all. Political scientists and commentators will examine that question for decades, but 2000 provides a prime example of why presidential elections aren't won on paper.

On paper right now, the Republicans are goners. President Bush's disapproval ratings rose to 65 percent in June, just a (statistically insignificant) sliver below Nixon's 66 percent disapproval rating in August 1974, the month he resigned the presidency -- and a point above the 64 percent disapproval rating President Bush's father recorded two months after the Republicans thought the Democrats might be disappearing from American politics.

One more number completes this morning's homily of caution: Guess who notched a 54 percent disapproval rating 22 months before he won a historic landslide re-election? That would be Ronald Reagan, whose entire career consisted of baffling the experts and confounding expectations.

That's why there's no hurry to consider the election over. There's still a long way to go. There are stumbles to be made and surprises to occur. No one knows what will happen in Iraq. No one knows what will happen in Iran. And here's one more: No one really knows what will happen in Iowa.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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