Saturday, December 8, 2012

Election post mortem

The presidential election teaches us an important lesson, but not the one that most people have been drawing from it.  It's not that the Republicans are a minority party.  They may be, but there is no way to reach that conclusion from a single presidential election.  In general, people are far too hasty to draw long-term conclusions from short-term events.  In 2000, we learned, supposedly, that America was hopelessly divided between blue states and red states.  In 2004, it looked like Republicans had a virtual lock on the presidency, having won 7 of the last 10, and only one of the three Democrats elected had won a majority.  In 2008, we learned that Democrats were permanently ascendant, and Republicans would no longer be a political force in 10 years.  Obviously, that turned out to be very wrong, as did the previous predictions.  That's one of the reasons that I am sceptical this time around.

Another reason is that there is a bigger lesson:  it's hard to defeat a sitting president.  Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, only four sitting presidents have been defeated for re-election that I can recall.  In 1912, Taft lost to Wilson, but that election was heavily influenced by the 3rd party candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1932, Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt.  There was a depression going on, of course.  In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in the midst of some very serious foreign and domestic problems.  Probably the most surprising defeat was George Bush in 1992, not only because he was a sitting president, but because he had one of the highest approval ratings in history early in his presidency.  The recession and the breaking of his no new taxes pledge were responsible, but even so it required an extraordinary politician to defeat him.

Compared to those four instances, the sitting president won 14 times:  in 1904, 1916, 1924, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2004, and 2012.  In several cases, the incumbent seemed to be in serious trouble, notably 1948, 1996, and 2012, but still won.  The most lopsided results occurred during a sitting president's re-election, in 1936, 1964, 1972, and 1984.  Reagan beat Carter handily, but he beat Mondale even more convincingly.  Roosevelt crushed Hoover, but he had an even bigger percentage of the popular vote against Alf Landon.  Nixon barely won in 1968, but he won a decisive victory in 1972.

This is one reason I support term limits.  The sitting president has such a built-in advantage that the situation usually must be very bad for his opponent to have a chance.  I originally thought the 22nd amendment was a bad idea, but, I think in retrospect, that we would certainly have had more presidents serving 3 or more terms without it, and having an executive in power for that long is a dangerous precedent.

So the fact that the Republicans lost in 2012 should not be all that surprising.  The lengthy stagnation of the economy for the previous four years was bad, but it was gradually getting better; and I argued last year that it might reasonably lead to Obama's re-election.  Things were going in the right direction, and they were at their best point of his presidency when the election occurred.

On the other hand, as I have said, Romney's defeat should not in any way be a sign for Republicans to panic.  First, the next election, when Obama can't run again, will be a much better test of the relative popularity of Republican and Democrat ideas -- especially since the full effects of the Affordable Care Act will be clear by then.  Second, the fact that Republicans continue to control the House of Representatives by a substantial margin shows that they are not a "minority party" in a meaningful sense.  They may be someday, but for the present they have an equal right to claim majority status with Democrats, and I doubt whether anyone can truly predict how the parties and their popularity will change in the next decade.

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