The Recency Effect and 2008

I was reading Jay Cost earlier this week, and he was of the opinion that, historically, the Republicans are in for a rough haul in 2008. Certainly he has reasons to think so, but I disagree a bit with him about the historical influences at stake. This is partly due to the Recency Effect, which may be phrased as ‘Folks See Today and Yesterday, and Forget Everything Else”. A bit of an over-simplification, but to my mind true as Gospel when we’re talking about elections.

I don’t want to re-open the feud between various factions of Republicans about President Bush. The facts are plain enough for anyone who can stop shouting long enough to think the matter through, but that is turning out to be a problem for a lot of folks. Bad news for the Donkey Kongs, is that all this feuding does not mean that Conservatives will suddenly decide to vote Donkey out of spite, or that they will sit out the next election. Like it or not, people with strong opinions tend to vote by those opinions, and if Bush is not their cup of joe, well, he’s not running this time around, now is he? The Donks will run against Bush anyway, but then that’s another psychological issue I will let alone for here. So I want to examine, from a somewhat casual and personal point of view, the Presidential elections from 1948 to 2004, and why they went the way they did. I picked 1948 for my starting point because of the number of elections available to consider, and because it’s a good starting point for the modern political era. FDR was an anomaly, call him whatever else you will, and before him the media, methods of debate and public opinion consideration were so radically different that the elections hardly bear comparison. Mr. Cost thinks differently, and on some levels I agree with his argument, but for this consideration the closer term is the only relevant one. I doubt, for example, that most folks could name the losing candidate from the major parties from any election prior to their birth.

I begin then, with 1948. President at that time was Harry Truman, not very popular with Democrats and certainly not with Republicans, whom he regularly treated like trash. That’s one reason why Democrats won’t mention him these days – they don’t want comparisons between a Democrat and a Republican who put doing the right thing ahead of being popular. Anyway, Truman was far behind in the polls to a fellow named Dewey, a prominent New Yorker with a reputation for integrity and straight-speaking – sound like anyone running for President these days? It was supposed to be a done deal, no chance for Truman, but the history books show that Truman pulled out that election. The lesson, largely ignored today, was that you can never count out a man of conviction, especially when he’s already the President.

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Move on to 1952. Democrats by then were really angry with Harry Truman. Mad enough to let him know that he couldn’t get the nod for another term. Well, near as I can see that was an extremely stupid thing for the Democrats to do, seeing as how there were still millions of American Democrats who thought of Harry as Mr. President, and with a measure of respect, as well. So playing ‘We’re Not Harry’ cost the Democrats some support, and when the GOP was smart enough to get General Ike to run on their ticket, that was it. Maybe Eisenhower would have won anyway against Truman, but there’s no question the Democrats made their hand weaker by whacking their own guy.

That brings us to 1956. Eisenhower versus Stevenson again, with pretty much the same results. When you consider that this time Ike was the sitting President and not the challenger, this tells you that he should have had a harder time in 1952, if he’d run against Truman. Not trying to pick on President Eisenhower, but his 1956 election was pretty vanilla fare, with no major bad news balanced against a lot of general good feeling. A don’t-rock-the-boat kind of thing, which must have annoyed Stevenson immensely. The lesson there, I hate to say, is that a President who chooses not to stand up in the hard fights can look real good in the short run.

Next, 1960. Nixon losing to Kennedy was a stunner at the time for the politicos, but it shouldn’t have been. Kennedy ran as the effective challenger, since Nixon was the Vice-President under Eisenhower. But in actual fact, there was not much of an impressive executive resume for Nixon. Yes, he’d been a member of Congress, but that has limits to its value. So in actual fact it was a race between a guy with name recognition because he was connected to the President, and a guy with name recognition because he was articulate, handsome, and rich. The lesson, is that such contests are usually close.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson smashed Barry Goldwater. Some of that was residual from Kennedy’s assassination; in 1964 not so many people knew JFK hated LBJ. A bit of that was old-fashioned dirty tricks, frankly much nastier than the stuff we see today. And some of that was that folks wanted to see Johnson given a chance to have his own term. It’s worth noting that 1964 was the last time a Democrat won the White House in a landslide.

On to 1968. What a mess. The Democrats were in a sorry state, having abandoned LBJ – maybe for good reason, maybe not, but he got a delegation of ‘crats in his office telling him he should find a good moving company. Made him bitter enough that he refused to support anyone in the race for most of the campaign, which certainly hurt the eventual nominee, VP Hubert Humphrey. It also hurt the Democrats that Robert Kennedy was assassinated – it may be a stretch to claim that RFK was a lock for the nomination, but he was certainly a force in the election, and a portion of the Democrats simply lost any reason to vote when Bobby Kennedy was dead. Add to that the fierce anger in the South against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which manifested itself in support of George Wallace, and you can see why Richard Nixon was able to win the election with only 43% of the popular vote. The lesson is, never assume the other guy is so bad that you cannot lose, and once again that deserting your President will cost you for it.

Next, 1972. If it makes sense to say that Richard Nixon only won – barely – in 1968 because the Democrats blew their unity, identity, and party discipline, what does it say that Nixon blew away Senator George McGovern in 1972? It should be noted that the Watergate scandal indicates that Nixon’s campaign was actively working at underhanded ways to win, but it’s unsure whether it would have made all that much difference. Nixon won 49 states, including McGovern’s home state of South Dakota. This was partly due to McGovern’s poor handling of his campaign (he fired his VP pick in the summer, for example), McGovern’s poor selection of issues (McGovern based a lot of his campaign on a ‘cut and run’ strategy in Vietnam, missing the fact that the Paris Peace Accords had given Nixon a much stronger hand in that arena, and that most Americans felt that cutting out on an ally was wrong, even in an unpopular war). The lesson is, organization and consistency is a critical factor.

On to 1976. This one is pretty simple. The Watergate burglars were unable to keep their secret, and whatever his initial involvement in the crime, Nixon’s deliberate obstruction of the FBI was criminal. Like another President later on, Nixon’s lying is what did him in, and his own party confronted him with the threat of impeachment. Nixon resigned in 1974, leaving unlucky Gerald Ford to try to lead the GOP. The 1974 mid-term elections were a disaster, and Ford lacked both the resume to claim authority to lead and the charisma to charm the nation. A folksy Democrat from Georgia simply smiled a lot, promised not to lie, and won almost by default. 1976 was also the last time a Democrat running for President claimed a majority of the popular vote. The lesson is, the voters will punish the party for a bad individual, if he’s a Republican.

Next up – The New Republicans, and the New Democrats

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