Thursday, May 15, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

Conventional Wisdom says that Bracak Obama will be the next president. He is a Democrat and we have had a Republican president with a very low approval rating for the last eight years. The electorate should be hungry for a change. In most elections following a two-term president, the White House changes parties.

So how accurate is conventional wisdom?

In 2004, conventional wisdom said that any credible challenger could beat Bush. Kerry was favored right up through the early exit polls.

Over the last 60 years, there have been five two-term presidents (counting LBJ who served part of JFK's term and one on his own). One of these (1952) was an open election. The opposite party won however the winning candidate was Ike who had been courted by both parties and would probably have won, regardless of party affiliation.

In 1960, 1968, 1988, and 2000, the current vice-president ran and lost in three of the four elections. Three of these were very close and could have gone either way, especially 1960 and 2000 which had disputed states). George H. W. Bush won a decisive victory in 1988 on the strength of Reagan's performance. Humphrey in 1968 and Gore in 2000 were running on the coat-tails of unpopular presidents (Clinton's approval ratings were pretty low by 2000) and still came close to capturing the presidency. From this we can conclude that the election following a two-term president does not always switch parties.

In every election that I can remember (starting in 1968) the candidate who had the most trouble securing the nomination lost. Humphrey didn't even run in the primaries. He was selected by the convention in 1968. McGovern won a tight victory at the convention in 1972. Support for Reagan over Ford in 1976 was so strong that it shut down the convention for around an hour while Reagan supporters cheered. In 1980 Ted Kennedy challenged President Carter. In 1984, Mondale had trouble defeating Gary Hart. Bush secured the nomination well before Dukakis in 1988. Bush was challenged internally in 1992 while Clinton quickly secured the nomination. No Democrat seriously challenged Clinton in 1996. In 2000, G. W. Bush secured the nomination before Gore did. In 2004 no one seriously challenged Bush. In all of these cases, disputes in the primaries signaled a lack of support in the general election.

Which brings us to 2008. Obama has the nomination but he is still losing primaries in Democratic stronghold states. McCain's last challenger conceded two months ago. This
says more about the voters than it does about Hillary. Edwards got 7% of the vote in West Virginia and he dropped out months ago.

It is impossible to say for certain because voters will not admit it to pollsters but I suspect that much of Hillary's support is actually the anti-Obama vote. Some of this is racially motivated. A recent Washington Post story told about Obama campaign workers encountering raw racism (among Democrats).

A recent poll showed that most people think that the country is moving in the wrong direction and trust the Democrats over the Republicans on all ten issues asked. While this implies that generic Democrats should beat generic Republicans, it overlooks people's actual views on issues. On most subjects such as raising taxes and expanding government, the respondents were closer to the Republicans than the Democrats. This implies that a conservative Democrat could win over a Republican.

Much has been made of the special election this week where a Democrat won in a district that was solidly Republican in previous elections. What is overlooked is that, as with many of the recent Democratic victories, the winning candidate was a conservative Democrat. Congressional Republicans have managed a working majority on many core issues by reaching out to these freshman conservative Democrats. If the party gets too aggressive about disciplining these renegades they may switch parties. This happened several times in the 1980s.

So the electorate is likely to look at individuals and issues as much or more than party affiliation. That is why McCain is doing so well in the polls. You would expect at this point for the Democratic challenger(s) to be burying the Republican.

What does all of this add up to? It is really too early to say except that the election isn't as wrapped up as conventional wisdom would have it.

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