Election 2012: It’s looking like 1964

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the year when because of the bad economy Republicans are supposed to be shoe-ins for election. When the president is floundering due to a bad economy and high unemployment (so the theory goes) the alternative, no matter how poor a choice, should coast to election.

Elections tend to be fickle events and often turn on last minute happenings. Still, when one projects the current state of politics forward to November, conventional wisdom seems likely to lose. If I were President Obama, I would not spend too much time worrying about his reelection. Instead, I would spend more time working to elect a Congress that will work with him during a second term. Trends suggest this election will resemble the Election of 1964. In that election, President Lyndon Johnson cruised to an easy election. (He assumed the presidency on the death of President Kennedy.) Democrats also picked up thirty-four House seats and two Senate seats.

Back in 1964, the Republican Party was about as confused a party as they are today. The conventional wisdom forty-eight years ago was that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller would cruise to his party’s nomination. Rockefeller though had some Newt Gingrich in him. He was not the bombastic, bomb-throwing Republican like Newt. That dubious honor went to Senator Barry Goldwater (Arizona). Rockefeller was an establishment Republican. He spent much of his time as governor building highways, not fretting about cutting taxes. Rockefeller modeled Gingrich in that his personal life left much to be desired. In 1963, he divorced his wife and married a woman fifteen years his younger on the rebound. In the divorce settlement, his new wife’s ex-husband was granted custody of her children. This fed rumors of adultery, which became a serious liability for Rockefeller, and helped drive the candidacy of the bombastic Barry Goldwater.

For those pining for a true conservative, Goldwater more than delivered. He wanted a much more aggressive war in Vietnam than Johnson had delivered, and was fanatically anticommunist. His rhetoric suggested that preemptive use of nuclear weapons was okay, which greatly alarmed most Americans. Despite this, Goldwater was successful in achieving the nomination, in part due to Rockefeller’s marital missteps. He even narrowly won the California primary, which largely sealed his nomination. The contrast could hardly have been sharper in the 1964 election: a true conservative vs. a Texas Democrat who was part redneck but doggedly in favor of civil rights. Goldwater won only six states and accumulated only 52 electoral votes.

Contrast Rockefeller and Goldwater with the current field of Republican presidential candidates. No matter who is eventually nominated, they will be (to quote Mitt Romney) “severely conservative”, or at least be forced to run as one. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney, each is as at least as alarming as Barry Goldwater was in 1964. There is nothing the least bit moderate about any of them, at least judging by their rhetoric. Moreover, each carries “severe” baggage. Romney is the flip flopper to end all flip floppers, willing to say virtually anything for a vote. Gingrich has a history with Americans that conjures up nastiness and revulsion. Ron Paul wants to go back on the gold standard, favors a policy of isolationism, plus wants to cut the government roughly in half. Rick Santorum thinks birth control should not even be covered by insurance plans. This is borne out in polls where each candidate is polled against President Obama in a hypothetical election. Talking Points Memo keeps a list of these head to head matchups. In the best of them for Republicans, Obama leads Romney by seven points. If the election were held today, he would trounce Gingrich by thirteen points, Ron Paul by ten points and Santorum by seven points.

As I said, dynamics can change as the campaigns get underway. However, it’s already understood that Republicans are underwhelmed with their candidates this year. This is evidenced by substantially lower rates of participation by Republicans in primaries and caucuses to date compared with recent years. Unless their nominee can subsequently animate Republicans in a way they so far haven’t, this trend is likely to continue through the election, giving Democrats an enthusiasm advantage. Surprisingly, Democrats appear to be rallying behind Obama in this election, and their enthusiasm level seems quite high, in spite of the fact that Obama has governed the country more like a 1970s establishment Republican than a Democrat.

Of course, the biggest factor determining this election the state will be of the economy. It remains to be seen how it will play out, but the recovery seems to be becoming tangible to ordinary Americans at last, with the unemployment rate likely to be below eight percent in a month or two. This is a rate that is still too high, but the unemployment rate seems to be steadily dropping rather than holding steady. As a trend, it suggests whatever Obama is doing is working, at least belatedly. Independents would be hard-pressed to choose an unknown commodity over a known one that is delivering, particularly when the choice may affect their job prospects and bank balances.

Will all this good economic news make the public more forgiving toward their Congress? There is little evidence of this, with approval ratings of Congress hovering in the 10 to 13 percent range. What’s hard to figure out is how much of this disgust will translate into “throw my representative out of Congress too”. If so will it be bipartisan, or partisan? Given the likely higher enthusiasm from Democrats in this election, it seems likely that Democrats will benefit from these dynamics rather than Republicans. Republicans have two small factors in their favor: voter ID laws likely to reduce votes from minorities and completion of redistricting, making Republicans more likely to retain seats than lose them.

There are a lot of retiring Democratic senators this year, so Democrats will be fighting headwinds trying to retain their narrow control of the Senate. 2010 turned out to be a change election in favor of House Republicans. Two years though of a Tea Party dominated House have left most Americans infuriated with their obstructionism and unwillingness to compromise. Disapproval of Congress is today higher than it was prior to the 2010 election. Given that many Republicans are likely to sit out this election, it’s not unreasonable to think that Democrats will regain control of the House. I think the odds are at least 50/50 Democrats will succeed.

I do suspect that barring any great surprises that Obama will cruise to an easy reelection. This will be for no other reason that he is a defender of the status quo, and Americans like their Social Security and Medicare. The Senate is likelier than not to switch to Republican control, but only narrowly if it occurs. The means that Democrats can keep the Senate as bollixed up as Republicans have done. If I had to bet, I’d bet that Democrats will regain the House, marginally lose the Senate and retain the White House.

In the election’s aftermath, Republicans will have to look at the wreckage. The sober ones will have to ask how much of it was self-inflicted by moving even further to the right. As Barry Goldwater put it in the 1964 election, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Maybe not, but extremism by nominees for a political party is likely to be a vote loser. After much moaning and groaning, this may open a welcome space for centrist Republicans again. They are likely to find plenty of independents that were reluctantly voting for Democrats only because there was no centrist Republicans.

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