Since the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign has—sadly—already begun, let’s start 2007 with some myth-shattering thoughts about getting elected.
The talking heads were in universal agreement that the very close and relatively close presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 demonstrated how “polarized” the voters are. In a technical sense, this is true, but not at all in the way they meant. Elections are close when there is no substantive difference between the two candidates. Then, and only then, will wedge issues—bespeaking polarization—come to the fore. Certainly, party affiliation is also a wedge issue, even if hardly anyone views it as such.
The best way to understand all of this is to look at history, and run the numbers. After all, no one can argue with the numbers, especially in a landslide. And, what produces a landslide?
Easy. One candidate is MUCH better than the other. Wedge issues don’t matter, worrying about what states might be “battlegrounds” is irrelevant, and all the foolish strategy played out by faux pundits, such as Karl Rove, is simply unnecessary.
In 1996, Clinton achieved electoral dominance (379 to 159) although he was perceived to be vulnerable, based on numerous scandals. So, how did the Republicans blow it? They nominated a terrible candidate, Bob Dole, who was boring and too old. Why? Because it was Dole’s turn. There has never been a better example of a party not wanting to win the election, instead choosing to play petty internal politics by rewarding (with a loss?) one of their loyal good old boys. A more attractive Republican would have won, for sure.
In 1988, the charisma-challenged team of Bush/Quayle crushed Dukakis/Bentsen (426 to 111). It would be difficult to imagine a worse candidate than Michael Dukakis, and the electorate certainly agreed. What in the world were the Dems thinking?
In 1984, Reagan was reelected in an electoral vote landslide, winning 49 states. Mondale barely won his home state of Minnesota (by only 3761 votes). Thus, Reagan came within less than 3800 votes of winning in all 50 states. Reagan’s record 525 electoral votes marked the worst defeat of any Democratic candidate in history. Here, you had the double whammy: Reagan was a great candidate and Mondale was plain awful. Ironically, Mondale could have been helped by having a female running mate, if she weren’t so tied to scandals. It just doesn’t get any more obvious than this one.
In 1980, Reagan won big (489 to 49) over Jimmy Carter, and why shouldn’t he have? Carter’s presidency was the worst since World War II at least, and Reagan scored big points at a debate when he asked: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Apparently, most people felt that they were not.
Finally, in 1964, Goldwater was creamed by Lyndon Johnson (486 to 52). A very strong candidate would be needed to overcome the sympathy factor for JFK stand-in LBJ, and Goldwater was not the guy. Not only did he have zero charisma, but the campaign was horrific. Goldwater could have demonstrated his conservative bona fides without coming out against the Civil Rights Act, and the advocacy of nukes in Vietnam was over the top. Another disaster.
What can we conclude?
To win big—and that’s the best way to win isn’t it—you have to be a lot better than your opponent. To win huge, you have to be better than your opponent, and he has to be extra bad.
OK. This seems pretty simple. How come the parties are not doing this routinely, you might ask. I can only conclude that they do not care about winning, as much as they care about the electoral process. They actually believe that the candidate does not matter nearly as much as their focus groups, stupid primary elections, tracking polls, pandering to various groups (only to offend other groups), and—of course—their pathetic little good old boy networks.
If they really wanted a relevant primary, there could be a single national primary, rather than the expensive, pointless, and endless state contests. That way, the party leaders could get an excellent forecast of both the popular and electoral vote breakdowns. More than that, the primary process would not be distorted by false momentum built up in small states, or over-hyped by the press. But, that would spoil all the fun, wouldn’t it?
And, they could also find good candidates. Does anyone believe for one moment that in this country of 300 million people, the present crop of mediocrity represents the best we can do?
Until such time that the status quo gives way to common sense, though, we’re in for a lot more of the same: Crummy politics, crummy candidates, and lousy presidents.