Saturday, March 26, 2016

Decisions Are Made By Those Who Show Up

I had heard the quote "Decisions are made by those who show up" long before I heard Allison Janney (as C.J. Cregg) say it on The West Wing. I don't know who said it first. Some say it was Woody Allen. Some say it was Harry Truman. I've even heard it suggested that Margaret Mead said it first.

That isn't really important. What is important is that it expresses a truism that is hard, if not impossible, to refute, especially in the world of politics. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that, when all is said and done, no other sentence will better describe the eventual outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign.

I say that because I have been reading a number of columns lately from political observers, most of whom have already demonstrated that their sympathies are with Hillary Clinton — and Bernie Sanders, too (they presume, and probably justifiably, that Hillary will be the nominee so they can afford to be inclusive) — and they insist that the battle between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will divide the Republican Party, no matter who gets the nomination, and that will guarantee Clinton's election.

It's inevitable, they say.

Let me tell you something. Nothing is inevitable — except, as they say, death and taxes.

We're more than seven months from the election. That is an eternity in politics.

And polls are merely snapshots of opinion at a particular point in time.

I've been a student of history for many years (amateur student of history, mostly, although I was an actual history student when I was in graduate school; it was my minor), and I can appreciate the pundits' use of history in their logic even though I think they tend to misapply its lessons. Still, at a time when most young people can name every member of the Kardashian family but few can tell you who the vice president is, I find any knowledge and application of current events and history refreshing, even encouraging.

The most prevalent theory seems to be that, in the last six elections, Democrats have won nearly enough states regularly to win the whole shootin' match. They lost the electoral vote in two of those elections and the popular vote in one. Therefore, this theory goes, the Democrats already have nearly enough states in the bag to win. They only need to win a couple more to clinch victory.

The Republicans, on the other hand, would have to win all the states they have been winning — mostly Southern and Western states — just about run the table on all the battleground states and perhaps try to peel off one or two of the states that are assumed to be in the Democrats' corner to win the national election — and that, the pundits agree, is a mountain too high.

This ignores the fact that American politics is cyclical.

Yes, it is true that, for example, California, the biggest prize of them all, the state that, all by itself, can deliver precisely one–fifth of the electoral votes a candidate needs to win, has voted for Democrats six straight times. But it voted for Republicans in the six elections prior to that.

And you can find all sorts of other examples like that, states that have been voting for Democrats in every election since 1992, and some for an election before that, but many of those states voted Republican fairly regularly for decades prior. The political landscape is always shifting. The issues are always changing. And the events that affect elections are always different. They may look similar, but they are never identical. It's like Mark Twain said. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

One clear trend has emerged since the end of World War II. A party typically wins two straight national elections, then the other party wins the next two elections. Only once in the last 70 years has a party won three consecutive presidential elections. That was in the 1980, 1984 and 1988 presidential elections. Ronald Reagan won the first two, and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, won the third.

And only once since World War II has a party taken the White House from the other party in a national election and failed to win the next one. That was when Jimmy Carter won in 1976 and lost in 1980.

(By the way, Reagan trailed President Carter by 25 points in the polls that were taken at this stage of the 1980 presidential campaign. He won by 10 percentage points when the votes were counted in November.)

I've been following elections for a long time, and the one great truth is that turnout is what matters. Who shows up? And why?

To a great extent Barack Obama owed his election eight years ago to an unlikely coalition of groups that have seldom been active in politics. In 2008 I think many were motivated by the historic opportunity to participate in the election of the nation's first black president. I also think that the 2016 Clinton campaign was built around the idea that these groups would be similarly motivated by the opportunity to participate in the election of the nation's first female president, but those groups seem to have lost their taste for politics. Maybe they grew complacent with their successes in 2008 and 2012. Whatever the reason (if there is a single reason) turnout in Democratic primaries is way down this year. Across the board.

Turnout in the Republican primaries, on the other hand, is way up. Again, across the board. I think it is safe to assume that most of those voters will be motivated to turn out in November even if their candidate is not the nominee.

The enthusiasm factor is on the Republicans' side this cycle. That can be explained away in the "open" primaries, in which Democrats and independents may vote, but not in the "closed" primaries, in which only registered Republicans are allowed to participate. Enthusiasm is up consistently in all Republican contests, closed or open.

As a party, the Republicans have been crafting an economic message that appears to resonate with blue–collar white voters, especially those in the Rust Belt (who blame trade agreements for the loss of their jobs) but really across the country. That has the potential to put several states in play that have been voting for Democrats for the last couple of decades. The selection of a Midwestern running mate could have some influence on this, too.

(It is a theory of mine that, while the presence of a Midwestern running mate didn't put Mitt Romney over the top in 2012, it may have influenced the outcome in unacknowledged ways. Obama's share of the popular vote dropped nearly 2 percentage points and his electoral vote tally dropped by 33 between his election in 2008 and his re–election in 2012. Mind you, this was with an incumbent president seeking re–election, which is usually an insurmountable headwind for the challenger. Obama was the first incumbent in nearly a century to be re–elected with fewer electoral votes than he received in his initial election.)

The counterargument to this is that Democrats will benefit from the minority vote. It's hard to imagine any Republican ever achieving Dwight Eisenhower's level of support from minority voters, but that was a couple of generations ago. In the last 50 years or so, Republican nominees have seldom managed to win one–tenth of black votes, and that is the largest minority voting bloc in America. In spite of their growing numbers, Hispanics don't exert much electoral influence because so few vote.

Just as it is hard to imagine a Republican duplicating Ike's appeal to the minority community, it is equally difficult to imagine a Republican doing as poorly among black voters as John McCain or Romney did against the first black presidential nominee. It almost seems as if this year's Republican nominee can't help but do better, even marginally, among blacks than they did.

As for the Hispanic vote, even if there is a sudden surge in participation, it is likely to occur mostly in states where Democrats have an advantage (if you subscribe to the theory that those states are already in the bag) — primarily California and New Mexico. Many people will mention Nevada and Colorado as well, and those states do have sizable Hispanic populations, but it's a mistake to label them as dependably Democratic.

Nevada has been more of a bellwether, voting with the winner in every election since 1980 (and every election but two since 1904).

Colorado has been more inclined to support Republicans even when they lose nationally. True, Colorado supported Barack Obama twice, but before that Colorado voted for Democrats twice in the 14 previous elections — for Bill Clinton in 1992 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Colorado voted for Bob Dole over Clinton in 1996, for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976 and for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Republicans with an eye to the long term are sure to recognize the fact that their party must be perceived as much more receptive to minority participation in the years ahead, but right now there probably aren't that many minority votes for Republicans to win or lose in states where those voters can make a difference. To win this election, pandering to minority groups won't be necessary.

Some folks point out the sizable Hispanic population in the state where I live — Texas. It's true that Hispanics make up a considerable segment of the Texas population, but Texas hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since narrowly voting for Carter 40 years ago. Obama lost Texas twice, both times by more than 1 million votes.

If Hispanics become more reliable at the polls, they could exert quite a bit of influence on Texas politics, but that is likely to happen incrementally. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders is going to win Texas this year.

And then there is the emerging issue of terrorism. Even before the attacks in Brussels earlier this week, polls were showing that a majority of Americans supported Trump's proposal of a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants. My guess is that support for that proposal has gone up this week.

Since World War II, when people have been afraid, they have turned to Republicans. Postwar Democrats have (pardon the pun) progressively been perceived as unable to protect Americans when they are faced with a deadly threat. Take the 9/11 attacks, for example. The party that doesn't hold the White House almost always loses ground in Congress in the midterm election, but Republicans bucked the historical trend and gained ground in the 2002 midterms in large part because of the voters' fears of terrorism a year after the Twin Towers came down.

How many more terrorist attacks will there be between now and November? Will any of them be on U.S. soil?

What form will those attacks take? Will they be like the anthrax attacks of 2001 — which, of course, were not related to Islamic terrorism, but the next ones certainly could be — or will they be more digital in nature, attacking our technological vulnerabilities?

What will the situation be in the days and weeks leading up to the election? Will the economy be better or worse?

The answers to those questions and others will give you a good idea who will show up at the polls in November — and who won't.

No comments: