Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Glance at the Race for the White House

Each time we prepare to elect a president, there always seems to be someone seeking a party's nomination who sought it before but fell short. Most of the time, that candidate (or those candidates in especially active presidential election cycles) is said to be taking a different approach this time — presumably because the original approach failed the first time.

The message may be different, or the candidate may choose a different way to convey that message. The latter appears to be what Hillary Clinton is doing. "Clinton plans to forgo the packed rallies that marked her previous campaign," writes the Associated Press' Lisa Lerer, "and focus on smaller round-table events with selected groups of supporters."

Sometimes that is a good idea; other times, not so much. I am skeptical that it will help Clinton avoid questions about her email or acceptance of cash contributions from foreign governments seeking access while she was secretary of State. In the context of previous presidential campaigns, that isn't really surprising. It is frequently — but not always — difficult to know whether changing the message or how the message is presented is the right approach the second time around — until after the campaign is over.

By that time, of course, one need look no further than the election results to decide if the candidate (should he or she win the nomination) made the right choice. If it wasn't, there will be no shortage of scapegoats and other excuses in what boils down to a circular firing squad.

What is more certain these days is that it is difficult for a party to prevail in three consecutive national elections. Some people attribute that to fatigue with the incumbent party. Since the postwar era has coincided with the advent of television — which, in turn, has led to Americans having unprecedented access to a president's daily activities — that makes sense.

And I do think that plays a role in it, but I think it is more complex than that. Now, I'm going to lay a little groundwork here. I apologize in advance if it seems elementary.

There are two kinds of presidential election years — incumbent years and non–incumbent years. An incumbent year is when America has an incumbent president who is eligible to run for another term — and usually does. I think the last such incumbent who chose not to seek another term was Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Three other presidents in the 20th century made the decision not to seek another term when they legally could have — Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, Calvin Coolidge in 1928 and Harry Truman in 1952.

(Truman was president when the 22nd Amendment was ratified. He had served nearly two full terms by 1952, having succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, but the amendment made the specific point that it would not apply to whoever was president upon its ratification.)

Since we always have an incumbent, the matter of eligibility would seem to be the determining factor, but it isn't. LBJ's decision, which was largely the product of the public's increasingly sour mood about the war in Vietnam, not to seek another term as president instantly turned 1968 into a non–incumbent year. That's a year when the incumbent is not on the ballot in the general election, whether by choice or circumstance.

In recent times, non–incumbent years have tended to favor the nominee of the out–of–power party because those years have come when the incumbent usually is ineligible to seek another term.

It wasn't always that way. For whatever reason, it seems to have been largely a byproduct of World War II that parties almost never win three straight national elections. At least, that's when this pattern emerged. Before that, victories tended to come in bunches. Democrats won five straight elections between 1932 and 1948. The Republicans won the three elections prior to that — and 11 of 15 between 1860 and 1916.

Of course, it was after World War II ended when the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two full terms in office was ratified, and that was a game changer. Few presidents were tempted to seek a third term before the amendment was ratified, but it was always a possibility. Since the 22nd Amendment was ratified, it has been generally understood that, after winning his second term, a president gradually slips into irrelevance, essentially becoming a lame duck the day he takes the oath of office for the second time. Maybe that explains the pattern that has emerged in the last 67 years.

Since Harry Truman's "upset" victory in 1948, Americans have voted for the same party's nominees for president three straight times only once — in 1988 when Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Ronald Reagan. Otherwise, it has been so predictable you could set your calendar by it.

Bush was helped by the fact that President Reagan was still popular after eight years in office — Gallup had Reagan at 51% approval just before the 1988 election — but the popularity of the incumbent does not necessarily help the nominee of the president's party.

Prior to the 2000 election, Bill Clinton's approval rating was between 59% and 62%. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, narrowly won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote — in large part because he did not take advantage of Clinton's popularity and political skills during his campaign against George W. Bush.

Of course, if the incumbent's popularity is below 50%, his party's nominee to replace him is probably toast before the convention adjourns. George W. Bush's approval ratings were mostly in the 20s just before the 2008 election, which John McCain lost in a modest landslide.

And Lyndon Johnson's approval rating just before the 1968 election (42%) almost precisely mirrored Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey's share of the popular vote — and 1968 turned out to be a cliffhanger but only because independent candidate George Wallace was on the ballot.

No comments: