We are in a period of what I have called, in my introductions to The Almanac of American Politics, open-field politics. By this I mean a period in which political attitudes, issue focus and voting behavior have all oscillated wildly. This is in vivid contrast with the years between 1995 and 2005, which I have called a period of trench-warfare politics, characterized by enduring political attitudes, relatively steady issue foci and unusually steady voting behavior. That decade evidenced approximately equal support for both political parties, and the demographic factor that correlated most highly with voting behavior was religion, or within each sect the degree of religiosity. The steadiness of voting behavior can be gauged by the fact that in five straight congressional elections the Republican percentage of the popular vote for the House of Representatives (a good proxy for party and presidential support since the mid-1990s) varied between 48 percent and 51 percent, while the Democratic percentage varied between 46 percent and 49 percent—the narrowest range of support over a similar length of time since the 1880s. During the period of trench-warfare politics it became very difficult to predict which party would win the presidency, but easy to predict which candidate would win the electoral votes of almost every state.
Trench-warfare politics yielded to open-field politics in the summer of 2005, as American newscast viewers watched scenes of disorder in the streets of Baghdad and the streets of New Orleans. The seven years that have followed have been a period of continual political change, years in which prediction is perilous and last year’s rule of thumb often proves worthless. In the popular vote for House of Representatives, we saw record levels of support for Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and then record levels of support for Republicans in 2010. We saw a bigger turnaround in partisan preference between 2008 and 2010 than we have since the 1940s, a time in which most of today’s voters had not yet been born.
The numbers are worth reviewing. In 2006 Democrats won the popular vote for the House by a 53–44 percent margin, a sharp difference from the 49–48 percent Republican average margin in the five preceding contests from 1996 to 2004. In 2008 Democrats did slightly better in the House election, with a 54–43 percent popular vote margin, and Barack Obama was elected President with 53 percent of the vote to 46 percent for John McCain. Obama’s percentage was higher than that of any other Democratic nominee in history (a history that goes back to 1832), with the exceptions of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. In 2010, there was a major turnaround: Republicans won the popular vote for the House by a 52–45 percent margin. That is identical to their showing in 1994 and better than they have done in any House election since 1946. (Actually, if the South, then the nation’s most Democratic region, had been voting in numbers roughly proportionate to population, as it does today, House Republicans’ percentage would have been lower in 1946 than in 1994 or 2010.)
White voters, who despite ethnic changes still made up 77 percent of the electorate in 2010 according to exit polls, voted Republican by a 60–37 percent margin. That is the highest percentage ever for House Republicans among white voters (who by today’s definition constituted more than 90 percent of the electorate from the 1880s to the 1940s and virtually all of it before the Civil War) since the party was founded and first appeared on ballots in 1854.
Issues at Stake
he 9 percent shift in the House popular vote in 2010 as compared to 2008—9 percent up for the Republicans, 9 percent down for the Democrats—may look small, but it is the biggest percentage change between consecutive House elections since the contests of 1946 and 1948. And it is perhaps no coincidence that voters in those elections—like voters in 2010 but arguably unlike voters in any of the intervening ones—were faced with a very stark contrast between Democrats favoring and Republicans opposing a vast increase in the size and scope of government.
In his 1944 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt set out a statist platform for the postwar years: steeply graduated tax rates, government controls on crop production and food prices, continued wage controls, government-guaranteed jobs, pro-union labor laws, Federal aid to education, government provision of most housing and national health insurance. His successor Harry Truman endorsed it in September 1945. This was a vision not dissimilar from the wartime Beveridge Report in Britain, which formed one basis for the program of the Labour Party installed in office after the election of June and July 1945: wage and price controls, food rationing, nationalized industrial companies and national health insurance.
The Labour Party was able to enact almost the entirety of this program after it obtained a large majority in the House of Commons. The situation was different in the United States. Discontent was rife in 1946, with continued agitation for removal of wartime controls and more man-hours of labor union strikes than any other year in American history. The Republican campaign slogan was “Had enough?”, and the GOP won a sweeping victory. The Republican 80th Congress then proceeded to swiftly abolish wage and price controls, enact the biggest tax cut in American history, limit union power in the Taft-Hartley Act and reject government control of housing and education. Democrats won their majorities back in 1948, but most Southern and many Northern Democrats did not support reversing the work of the 80th Congress, so its basic policies endured for a generation or more. As it happened, these policies helped lay the basis for unexpected postwar prosperity, a vivid contrast with the dim, dull sluggishness of postwar socialist Britain.
The Obama Democrats came to office with the assumption—the lesson they took from the popular historians of the New Deal—that economic distress would make Americans more supportive of or at least amenable to a vast, swift increase in the size and scope of government. I believe that lesson is wrong, or at least not the full story, as I argued in Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan (1990), and as did Amity Shlaes in her 2008 book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. But it is a lesson nonetheless widely accepted by liberals and rarely frontally challenged by conservatives. In any case, in 2009 and 2010 President Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress acted on that assumption, backed by a large majority in the House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate from July 2009 to January 2010.
Doing so led to the passage of a $787 billion stimulus package in February 2009 and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare, to its opponents) in March 2010. Supporters of these policies predicted that the stimulus package would hold unemployment below 8 percent and that the healthcare legislation would bend the cost curve downward. And, even more important politically, they expected both measures to be widely popular.
Each of those expectations proved mistaken. Unemployment quickly rose above 8 percent and, as of this writing, remains there still. Meanwhile, the case that PPACA has held down healthcare costs is difficult to argue, in part because key provisions of the legislation are not scheduled to go into effect until 2014. Regardless, however, both measures remain unpopular among a majority of voters. On this the polling evidence is unequivocal. No wonder, then, that in his speeches and his campaign videos President Obama mentions them only in passing or by vague references.
The Obama Democrats’ policies not only have been unpopular generally. They also sparked an inrush into political activity of hundreds of thousands or even millions of citizens of a magnitude not seen since the so-called peace movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a phenomenon that quickly became known as the Tea Party movement. The label came from a several-minute “rant” by CNBC’s Rick Santelli, speaking from the trading pits in Chicago, in which he complained that mortgage forbearance proposals would mean that prudent taxpayers would have to pay for mortgages taken out by improvident homeowners. If we are in an era of open-field politics, the birth of the Tea Party movement may be likened to a second-half kickoff.
Again, since the mid-1990s, the popular vote for the House of Representatives has become a good proxy of support for the President and his party, which is to be expected at a time when ticket-splitting has become much less common than it was between the 1960s and the middle 1990s. It is an interesting fact that in the past three presidential elections the winning candidate’s percentage of the popular vote has been identical to, or within 1 percent of, the percentage of the popular vote for House of Representatives won by his party in the off-year elections two years before. Again, it is worth reviewing the numbers.
In 1998, the House vote was 49 percent Republican and 48 percent Democratic. In 2000 the presidential election was 48 percent to 48 percent. In 2002 Republicans won the House vote with 51 percent. In 2004 George W. Bush was re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. In 2006 Democrats won the House vote with 53 percent. In 2008, as I noted, Barack Obama was elected President with 53 percent of the vote. The tentative conclusion is that the voters’ judgment on a President and his party made after he is in office for nearly two years does not change substantially in the two years between the mid-terms and the next presidential election.
But it can, and if one goes back one more cycle there is a clear instance of this. In 1994 Republicans won the House by 52–45 percent—the same as in 2010. But in 1996 Bill Clinton was reelected by a 49–41 percent margin, and polling suggests he would have gotten 51 or 52 percent if Ross Perot had not been in the race. It is generally agreed, as was argued by Clinton and the news media at the time, that Clinton changed policies after his party got shellacked in the off-year election. “The era of big government is over”, he told the Republican Congress. So a President can run ahead of his party’s previous off-year showing if he demonstrably changes policies, and he probably can as well if circumstances change in some major way, as they did for example after the September 11, 2001 attacks. And it should be added that in a presidential year the electorate tends to contain a higher proportion of certain groups—young voters, black voters—who voted heavily for Barack Obama in 2008.
Yet as this is written in July 2012, the 2010 results do not augur well for President Obama’s chances in November. He has not changed policies—or at least he is not perceived as having changed policies—in response to his party’s off-year defeat, as Bill Clinton did in 1995 and 1996. There has been no major change in circumstances of the magnitude of 9/11—though in a dangerous world one of course cannot rule out the possibility of one occurring before November.
olitical pundits analyzing the 2012 presidential election tend to use as a benchmark the 2008 election results. This approach of going back to the previous presidential election made sense in a period of trench-warfare politics. In 2004 only three states cast electoral votes for different parties from the one they favored in 2000. In each of these cases the results were very close, and in most cases states voted much as they had four years before. But such steady voting behavior cannot be counted on in a period of open-field politics. In looking at this year’s presidential race, it may make sense to use as benchmarks not only the 2008 election results but also the midterm election results from 2010.
Barack Obama won 365 electoral votes in 2008; those same 28 states, the District of Columbia and the single congressional district he carried in Nebraska will, as a result of reapportionment following the 2010 Census, have 359 electoral votes in 2012. In contrast, the 35 states where Republicans won the popular vote for the House in 2010 have 351 electoral votes in 2012. Neither the 2008 nor the 2010 benchmark will be precisely replicated this year. The 2012 electorate will resemble the 2008 electorate more than that of 2010. But the voters in 2010 knew much more about the President and his policy than did the voters in 2008.
The scenario suggested by virtually all the press coverage so far could be called the 2000/2004 scenario: a closely divided race nationally in which both campaigns conduct a long, hard competitive slog through about a dozen target states where the outcome is in doubt. On everyone’s target list are eight states: New Hampshire in the East; Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in the South; Ohio and Iowa in the Midwest; Colorado and Nevada in the West. Off everyone’s list is one 2008 Obama state, Indiana, and another that he narrowly lost, Missouri. But in this period of open-field politics there have been some changes in the list of target states. This spring the Obama campaign argued that Arizona was winnable, now that Arizona’s John McCain was not the Republican nominee, while the Romney campaign argued that Pennsylvania was within reach. After Republican Governor Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin’s June 5 recall election, Republicans argued that their candidate was competitive in that state and in neighboring Michigan, both of which Obama carried by double-digit percentages in 2008. Note that Obama carried all eleven of these states in 2008, but also note that Republicans carried the House vote in all eleven of them in 2010. Late spring polls showed Obama ahead in most of them, but showed him falling short, despite being universally known, of 50 percent in each. At this point a case can be made that either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will carry each one of these states. But the fact that the playing field of target states seems to be changing as the campaign goes on suggests that, in a period of open-field politics, other scenarios are possible.
One alternative possibility is the 1964/1972 scenario: The challenger candidate disqualifies himself, whether by taking positions on important issues unacceptable to many of his party’s potential voters or by demonstrating a frivolous attitude toward the responsibilities of the presidency. It is easily possible to imagine such a scenario for 2012 if some of the other Republican candidates running this year had won the nomination. It is hard to imagine it with Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee. The Obama campaign has taken a turn at describing Romney as an extreme right-winger, but by June it seemed to be reverting to its earlier tack of describing him as a flip-flopper. It is hard to sustain both of these negative themes at the same time. As for frivolity, Romney may have weaknesses, but frivolousness is not one of them.
A second alternative is the 1988 scenario: Affluent voters break Republican. Vice President George Bush was 17 points behind Michael Dukakis after the 1988 Democratic National Convention, but he came back to win by a 53–46 percent margin, the same as Obama’s in 2008. One reason is that his “read my lips, no new taxes” statement solidified support among affluent suburbanites. His large margins in suburban counties enabled him to carry or run even in the Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles metropolitan areas and to carry most of the states in which those cities are located.
Since then affluent suburbs have trended Democratic. Big-city crime and welfare dependency—cause for complaint in 1988—declined in the 1990s. Northern suburbanites were turned off by Republicans’ conservative stands on cultural issues and by the increasing Southern accent of the party. Barack Obama carried most affluent suburbs outside the South in 2008. But Romney, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, may have more appeal in affluent suburbs than any Republican nominee in the previous two decades. He clinched the Republican nomination by winning large percentages in affluent suburban counties while running behind other candidates in rural and small town areas. In Michigan, for example, he carried his native Oakland County, the most affluent in the state, by 31,565 votes, while carrying the other 82 counties by a total of 413 votes. In 2008 Barack Obama’s appeal to young and high-educated voters, demonstrated in many primaries, carried over into the general election and enabled him to carry states like Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana, which had been out of reach for Democratic nominees in the 1995–2005 period of trench-warfare politics. It is possible, though far from certain, that Romney’s appeal in affluent suburbs will enable him to compete effectively in states that George W. Bush could not carry and that John McCain did not even target.
A final alternative possibility—though some readers may be able to think of more—is the 1980 scenario: a late breakaway from the incumbent. At almost no point in the 1980 campaign did it appear likely that Ronald Reagan would win a landslide victory in November. President Jimmy Carter led in the polls most of the way and was receiving generally positive job ratings. But those job ratings were buoyed up by approval of his various attempts to resolve the Iran hostage crisis—none of which was successful by the first week of November. His job ratings on the economy and on foreign policy apart from Iran were more negative during most of the year. Most voters, in other words, were ready for an alternative, but they were wary of Reagan, who was 69 years old and under attack as an extreme Goldwater-like conservative. But in his debate with Carter on the Tuesday before the election, Reagan echoed a 1934 Franklin Roosevelt fireside chat line, which he remembered but the press didn’t, when he asked, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Overnight polling showed that in the last weekend of the campaign opinion shifted sharply to Reagan; he won the popular vote by a 10 percent margin, more than that for any other candidate in the following 32 years.
Could something like that happen this year? I think Barack Obama was helped in 2008 by a widespread feeling that, as an abstract matter, it would be a good thing for Americans to elect a black President. This year I sense that many, perhaps most, voters don’t want the country to be seen as rejecting the first black President, but it’s not clear that this is a particularly strong feeling. That sentiment may be buoying up Obama’s job rating and favorability numbers for the time being, despite the sluggish economy and strong opposition to his major policies. If that’s correct, it’s possible that in the last days of the campaign many voters will decide, out of public view, that they just don’t want this incumbent in the White House for four more years.
The larger point is that in a period of open-field politics many more outcomes are possible than today’s pundits, most of whom came of age in the period of trench-warfare politics, may imagine. The 2012 campaign cycle has already had more than its share of surprises. However likely it remains that the race will be close and will be decided in a few clearly identified target states, voters may still have some surprises in store for us.