Are Elections Decided by Chance?

By Sean Trende - August 13, 2013

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Our presidential elections really do look more like they’re decided by something approaching chance than we like to think. This would obviously diminish the need for a party makeover.

2) What if it really is the economy, stupid?

I actually don’t believe that elections are truly random, though. Otherwise we’d have no ability to model or predict them. Instead, I think they have been best described by my friend Gerry Daly as “functionally random.” In other words, they are driven by factors that are either random or so complex that we can’t truly manage them. These factors allow the parties to have long runs or force them to have short runs in ways that approximate randomness.

Consider: Even the most fervent proponent of the “Emerging Democratic Majority” thesis will usually concede that things like wars, recessions, scandals, and catastrophically bad Democratic candidates will allow the GOP to win presidential elections intermittently. But this concession gives away the game, because these sorts of events are hardly intermittent.

There have been 23 elections (including midterms) since 1968. Wars, lousy economies, and scandals have played a major role in a baker’s dozen of these (1968, 1974, 1976, 1980, 1982, 1990, 1992, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010). If we toss in the opposite of recessions -- growth so strong that it is hard to see the incumbent party losing -- we’re really left with only a handful of “normal” electoral environments: maybe 1970, 1978, 1986, 1994, and 2012, although some of these are debatable as well.

More importantly, the strength of the economy is overwhelmingly reflected in the results of these elections. Examine the following chart, which shows GDP growth and the change in unemployment in 12 randomly ordered election years, as well as the incumbent’s job approval in the Gallup poll taken immediately preceding the election. Take a minute to go through these, and identify the years you would expect the incumbent party to lose: 

I am going to guess that just about everyone chose No. 10 (2008) and No. 11 (1980) as years where the incumbent party “should” have lost, and that most people also chose No. 1 (1992). I am also going to guess that very few people thought that Nos. 3 (2000), 4 (1988), 7 (1996), 9 (1972), or 12 (1984) were years that the incumbent party should have lost.

That leaves us with Nos. 2 (2004), 5 (1968), 6 (2012) and 8 (1976) as years that probably could have gone either way. As it turns out, these were all relatively close elections, which might have turned out differently but for a few external factors.

We’ve done this without any reference to party ideology. Unless your conclusions were radically different that what I’ve described, you’ve discovered a huge shortcoming with the basic narrative that the Democrats were too liberal to win from 1968 to 1988, and began winning only when they ran to the center. The truth is, from 1968 through 1988, Republicans had some pretty good luck with the playing fields. They won a close election in 1968 that the economic fundamentals suggested could have gone either way, and lost a close election that could have gone either way in 1976, but the rest of the elections would have been significant surprises had they turned out any differently. Put differently, if we can explain these elections well without reference to ideology, why put ideology in the discussion (we’ll talk more about this when discussing question No. 4 and in the conclusion).

From 1992 through 2012, Republicans barely won one election (in 2000) in an environment where they really didn’t have any business being competitive in the first place. They have split the elections that could have gone either way. Otherwise, they’ve had the misfortune of running in some pretty lousy environments.

So maybe all of this talk about party rebranding and the success of the Democratic Leadership Council running to the center may be irrelevant, or at least mostly irrelevant. It’s pretty clear to me that if Bill Clinton had run in 1984, he would have lost in a landslide -- probably not as big of a landslide as Walter Mondale, but still a landslide. If he’d run in 1988, he probably would have lost, although the election might have been close. We’d probably then conclude that DLC centrism was a ticket to oblivion, and celebrated the revival of New Deal liberalism when Tom Harkin defeated Bush in 1992.

Part 2 is tomorrow -- and remember: Definitive conclusions come in Part 3. 

* We see a similar tendency if we go back to the first Republican presidential candidate in 1856, but this analysis is complicated by the fact that varying portions of the Democratic base couldn’t vote from 1864 to 1876.

** In a set of 34, there are 29 sets of six. We expect to see five Republican or Democratic wins in any given set of six 18 percent of the time; 29 x 0.18 = 5.22. 

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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 Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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