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Why 2012 Is Not the GOP's "Last Chance"

Why 2012 Is Not the GOP's "Last Chance"

By Sean Trende - March 6, 2012


Jon Chait recently penned a column titled "2012 or Never." The subtitle, "Why 2012 Is the Republicans' Last Chance," pretty well sums up the theme of the piece: If Republicans don't win this year, they're doomed. It spawned an online panel discussion at The New York Times, where scholars debated whether this is "The Last Gasp of the GOP."

Having just authored a book on this subject, I thought it was worth weighing in too. The main problem with Chait's piece is that it's not entirely clear what 2012 is the Republicans' last chance for. The most obvious assumption is that it’s their last chance to win presidential/congressional elections. But Chait dismisses this possibility, noting correctly that the party will adapt, and that external shocks and random events will enable the GOP to win elections in the future.

If anything, Chait downplays these events too much. Consider this. The 2012 elections will be the 40th contest since presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats first squared off in 1856. I’ll spare you the math, but if presidential elections were decided by coin flip, we should expect to see either Republicans or Democrats win two elections in a row 20 times during this time period. In fact, that has occurred 22 times; if Obama is re-elected it will be 23.

We can go further with this. If elections were decided by coin flip, we’d expect 10 instances of either Republicans or Democrats winning three races in a row; there are 11. We’d expect five instances of either Republicans or Democrats winning four races in a row; there are six. Five in a row? We’d expect 2.5, and there are three. We’d expect one instance of six wins in a row, and indeed we have but one (Republicans from 1860 through 1880).

In other words, Barack Obama may well win re-election, and Democrats may well fire off three or four presidential victories in a row after this. But that will only occur to the extent that they govern well, and owing to the good fortune of avoiding unanticipated shocks to the system. History suggests that this is unlikely.

Indeed, what’s interesting about Chait’s piece is that 2010 -- the most recent example of what happens when the people perceive that you are governing poorly -- is completely missing from his picture. It is written off as a fluke, just as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira largely wrote off 1994 when writing their brilliant “Emerging Democratic Majority” in 2002 (the book that spawned Chait’s article, and countless others), and as most liberal pundits wrote off 2002 and 2004 after the 2008 elections.

It’s honestly fruitless to debate whether 2002/04/10 represented the “normal” election, or whether 2006/08 did. In fact, these elections can be explained quite easily without constructing some dominant majority for one party or the other, and then engaging in some form of special pleading to explain away electoral results that don’t fit with that majority.

The simplest explanation is that all five elections were normal; they played out exactly how you would expect them to play out, given a brief overview of the facts on the ground. When a party fights a relatively popular war (2002/04), or when its opponent is pushing through an unpopular agenda amid a sluggish recovery (2010), it wins. When it is fighting an unpopular war (2006), or when the economy is contracting by 9 percent on Election Day and the incumbent president has an approval rating in the 20s (2008), it loses.

Projecting forward, the safest thing to predict is that contingency and chance will continue to dominate electoral politics. If the economy continues to improve in 2012, and if certain portions of his agenda (like the auto bailout) become more popular, then Obama will be re-elected. If not, he will lose to a relatively weak opponent, perhaps badly.

And here’s one prediction I feel comfortable making: Whoever wins will try to spike the football and declare that the American people have finally endorsed their vision of government. It might even look that way if the economy takes off, if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to wind down relatively calmly, and no drastically unpopular measures are entertained.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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