Sunday, February 26, 2012

Peering Into the Future

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana

It really is amusing to hear diehard Democrats talking about the permanent damage that would be inflicted on the Republican Party if it cannot settle on a nominee before Easter.

And that, many of them are saying, is what we can expect if Mitt Romney fails to win the Michigan primary on Tuesday.

Granted, losing Michigan would be a bad thing for Romney — for several reasons.

First of all, it is never good when a presidential candidate fails to win his home/native state — just ask Presidents Al Gore (who lost his home state in 2000) and George McGovern (who lost his home state — and damn near everything else — in 1972) — and, while Romney made his name as an adult in Massachusetts and Utah, he grew up in Michigan.

Romney has been criticized by many in his party for not being sufficiently conservative. He's probably been the steadiest of the candidates, tap–dancing his way past the deep holes into which his rivals all seem to fall as soon as they are named the latest not Romney, but he has shown little positive movement within his party, even as the others have, one by one, dropped from the race.

Instead, the next not Romney emerges — and disgruntled Republicans gravitate to the flavor of the month.

Losing the state where he spent his youth could well be interpreted as further evidence to an increasingly skeptical Republican base that Romney can't close the deal.

Second, Michigan is a large state. Presidential candidates who can't win at least some of the largest states usually don't succeed in the general election — and the Republican rank–and–file are hungry for victory this year.

Consequently, the nominee's appeal to big–state (which usually means largely urban and suburban) voters is very important.

The outcomes are generally taken for granted in some large states. For instance, in the last 20 years, Democrats have been able to depend on winning the largest one (California) as well as New York and Pennsylvania and sometimes Michigan and Ohio. That's a pretty sizable base with which to begin in the Electoral College.

Republicans have carried Texas in every election since 1980, and sometimes they carry Florida. The GOP's big–state base isn't as big as the Democrats', but it's still a good start — and I really believe that Republicans are so eager to defeat Obama that they will vote for Romney, if he is the nominee, in spite of their misgivings.

I am convinced that Texas will vote for Romney if he is the nominee — even though most Texas Republicans probably would have preferred Texas Gov. Rick Perry before he dropped out and now are likely to support Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich in the primary, even if it is held in late May (as now appears likely) and the outcome in Texas will have no influence on any other state.

Such a streak is no guarantee, of course. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry Indiana and Virginia since 1964. In 2000, West Virginia voted for a non–incumbent Republican for the first time since 1928.

It's always possible that Texas will vote for Obama — but not very probable.

Records are made to be broken, and, likewise, electoral win streaks are made to be snapped. From 1904 to 2004, Missouri was on the winning side in every presidential election except one, but the Show–Me State voted for John McCain in 2008.

Missouri may start a new streak of voting with the winning side in 2012, but, until the votes are counted in November, clues to national voter behavior must be found elsewhere.

As polarized as American politics has become, the so–called swing states — the largest of which ordinarily are Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida — are probably the closest things to a bellwether that one is likely to find.

But the Democrats' current dire predictions for the Republicans if they have no presumptive nominee long before their convention in Tampa are not based on bellwethers.

They are based on a flawed faith in the conventional wisdom that once anointed nominees after only a couple of small states (led by New Hampshire) held their primaries.

Extended battles for the nomination were presumed to be fatal to a party's hopes for success because the nominee would be bruised and bloodied by the process — until Obama outlasted Hillary Clinton for the Democrats' nomination in 2008 and went on to be elected.

Of course, he might not have been elected if it had not been for the economic implosion in mid–September 2008. Before that happened, there was considerable angst in the Democratic Party, with some Democrats openly suggesting that Obama should have picked Clinton, not Joe Biden, to be his running mate.

After the economy imploded and was losing jobs at a six–figure monthly pace, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Today, I hear Democrats saying that, because recent numbers have been favorable to Obama, he is becoming an increasingly sure thing for re–election. Five months ago, Republicans were saying almost the same thing — except they were talking about how the numbers showed Obama was destined to lose.

Both parties have been on the right track, but they ignore the conventional wisdom I've been hearing since I was in college. It's held up pretty well over the years, and it still seems plenty valid to me.

Here it is — in a nutshell.

My political science professors all used to say that an election that involves an incumbent is always a referendum on that incumbent — and voters make up their minds about incumbents about six months before they go to the polls.

If that part is true, then the window is still open for both Obama and his eventual opponent, whoever that turns out to be. But it will be closing soon.

Here is how things have looked for recent presidents who sought second terms about six months before the voters went to the polls:
  • George W. Bush was narrowly re–elected in November 2004.

    His second term was such a disaster that it is easy to forget the fact that, in early May 2004, most polls showed his approval ratings just below the 50% mark, roughly even with the number who disapproved.

  • Bill Clinton's approval ratings were stuck in the 40s for most of 1995, but he rebounded and, by early May 1996, his approval numbers were in the mid–50s.

    He was re–elected by a comfortable margin in November 1996.

  • In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, George H.W. Bush was so popular that none of the top–tier Democrats wanted to run against him in 1992.

    But, by May 1992, a sour economy had taken its toll, and Bush's approval numbers were in the low 40s. He lost his bid for a second term to Clinton that November.

  • Ronald Reagan appears to have become the role model for all modern presidents and presidential wannabes — regardless of party.

    Republicans have been comparing themselves to Reagan for a long time, but recently Democrats have been getting into the act. Obama's supporters have been holding out Reagan as proof that a president can overcome high unemployment.

    With an unemployment rate that is significantly higher than the one that existed when Reagan asked for a second term, that isn't hard to understand, but it might be hard to duplicate. Reagan's approval numbers in May 1984, when joblessness was declining sharply, were in the low 50s and on the rise. He was re–elected in a landslide.

  • Obama and his supporters may try to compare their administration to Reagan's, but it is most often compared these days to the administration of Jimmy Carter — and the Carter presidency offers a cautionary tale for Obama.

    In May 1980, Carter's approval was in the low 40s. It was the last time Gallup found 40% or more of respondents approving of the job he was doing.

    Gas was selling for around $1.25 a gallon in May 1980. The price had been about 85 cents a gallon five or six months earlier.

    There were other factors involved in Carter's unsuccessful bid for a second term that fall, but the impact of the higher gas prices on American budgets can't be discounted.
Keep an eye on gas prices in the next couple of months — and see what kind of influence they are having on Obama's approval numbers.

I've heard experts speculate that gas prices in most parts of the country will be around $4/gallon by early May — which is, of course, when the higher prices usually kick in prior to the summer driving season. If that happens, I expect Obama's approval numbers to drop to 40 or lower.

And if that happens, it won't really matter who the presumptive GOP nominee is. He will win.

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