Thursday, March 08, 2012

Can Mitt Romney Win in November?

With Mitt Romney's win in the "Super Tuesday" primaries, it seems all but inevitible that he will become the Republican nominee in this year's presidential election.  Putting politics and ideologies and partisan loyalties aside, what can historical trends tell us about his chances of unseating Barack Obama this fall?

Before I begin, let me go ahead and deflect one very easy and obvious criticism: namely, that past trends don't necessarily predict future results.  This is a situation we find in virtually every presidential election - commentators and journalists and political pundits talking about "past trends" in previous elections that may give viewers and readers and listeners an idea of what to expect.  One recent situation comes to mind: prior to 2008, Missouri had voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election, except for one, going all the way back to 1904 - that's 100 years.  And in the one election where they voted for the eventual loser (1956), the vote was separated by just a few dozen ballots - less than 1/4 of 1% of the votes cast in the state - a virtual dead heat.  Thus, as Missouri goes, so goes the country.  Well, that "past trend" failed to predict future results in 2008.  Missouri voted with McCain, but Obama won the election.  The moral of the story is obvious: you have to take great care when assuming that a past trend has any bearing on what will transpire in the future.

So with that caveat in mind, what do history and past trends tells us about Romney's chances of winning this November?

To begin with, it's important to understand one undeniable fact about presidential history: it is extremely difficult to unseat a sitting president - even an unpopular one.  It's only happened five times in the last 100 years; more than twice that many have secured re-election.  It's a simple fact that being an incumbent president gives you a distinct advantage: recognition, familiarity, a prominent position from which to launch your campaign, a well-known record to point to.  Many people are simply willing to stay with what is comfortable rather than take a chance on something new.  This always gives an incumbent president an edge, no matter how popular or unpopular he may be.

In addition to this very general trend, of course, there are also a number of much more specific trends to take into consideration.  All of them bode poorly for Romney's chances of unseating Obama in November.   

The last time a sitting president lost his re-election bid was 1992 with George H.W. Bush.  Prior to that, it had occurred in 1980 with Jimmy Carter.  There are a number of similarities between these two elections.  Both Carter and Bush had entered office with a relatively prosperous and stable economy.  By the end of their first terms, however, the economy was in a recession.

Both Carter and Bush presided over unpopular foreign policy situations: Carter had the Iran hostage crisis, Bush a widely criticized war with Iraq that the general public felt had been left unfinished.

Finally, both both Carter and Bush had famously broken prominent campaign promises: Bush had infamously declared "No new taxes," then later raised taxes anyway, while Carter had promised to eliminate Executive office corruption in the wake of the Watergate scandal, but then steadfastly supported his good friend and appointee to the head of the Office of Management and Budget - Bert Lance - after Lance became embroiled in a financial ethics scandal; Lance eventually resigned in disgrace.

As a result of widespread criticism from both sides of the aisle, both Bush and Carter faced uphill battles to secure the re-nomination of their respective parties.  Carter faced a strong challenger in the Democratic primary from Ted Kennedy, while Bush was forced to contend with prominent political pundit Pat Buchanan in the Republican primary.  While Bush still managed to win every state in the primaries, Buchanan won about 25% of the total primary vote - a very strong showing against a sitting president.  Carter, for his part, only managed to win 37 states in the primary, losing 12 to Kennedy and 1 to Jerry Brown of California.

Obama, however, does not have any legitimate contenders for the Democratic primary, and is on pace to win all 50 states and about 95% of the primary vote. 

History has shown that when a sitting president faces a significant battle in his own party's primary, this spells doom for his re-election bid.

In fact, throughout the history of the presidency, virtually every incumbent who faced serious re-nomination challenges went on to lose in the general election.  Likewise, virtually every incumbent who faced no serious contenders within his own party's primary (like Obama this year), went on to win the general election.

In fact, the last time a sitting president faced no serious challenges to re-nomination, but still went on to lose the general election, was 1932.  Prior to that, it was 1888.  And those two instances - Hoover in 1932, and Cleveland in 1888 - are the only two times in U.S. history that a sitting president has faced no serious re-nomination challenge, but still gone on to lose re-election.

History would suggest very strongly that this is a good indicator of Obama's chances to win against Romney in November.  Incumbent presidents with strong support from their party's base simply do not, very often, lose re-election bids.  In fact, it almost never happens.  And the two times it has happened, it has involved unique and unusual circumstances.  

Cleveland, in 1888, actually won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote.  The reason he lost the electoral vote is because he lost his home state of New York.  The reason he lost New York is because New York's powerful Democratic political organization - Tammany Hall - campaigned for the Republican Harrison because Cleveland had attempted to reform Tammany Hall's corrupt politics, and they never forgave him for it.  (Cleveland, by the way, defeated Harrison 4 years later in a rematch.)  

Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland
And Hoover, of course, was blamed for the worst economic disaster in U.S. history and lost in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history to Franlkin D. Roosevelt. 

Herbert Hoover
Hoover's loss to Roosevelt in 1932 segues into yet another historical trend that bodes well for Obama, and poorly for Romney.  Throughout U.S. history, particularly since 1900, when incumbent presidents have lost re-election bids, it has almost always involved a very strong and charismatic opponent who was able to sweep the primaries and unite his political base.  This was seen in 1932 with Hoover and Roosevelt, 1980 with Carter and Reagan, and 1992 with Bush and Clinton.  

As this primary season has shown us, the only thing uniting Republicans right now is their desire to unseat Obama.  Even though Romney appears now to be on the verge of securing the nomination, the Republicans have been largely split on who they most want.  To date, three different candidates have won states, and four candidates have won delegates.  At one point or another, six of the seven original candidates have led in national polls.  The Republicans simply are not united behind any of their candidates, and this has led most commentators to agree that none of the candidates has won the heart of the Republican party.  The Republicans simply are not unified behind any of their candidates.  And while most blue-blooded Republicans will vote, in the general election, for Romney (or whoever wins the nomination), many of them will vote only grudgingly.  This does not bode well for the Republican party.

Since 1900, exactly five incumbent presidents have lost their re-election bid.  Let's look at each of them a bit more closely.

In 1912, William Howard Taft ran for re-election.  That year saw a major split in the Republican party, with Taft leading the so-called "conservative" Republicans, and former president Teddy Roosevelt leading the "progressive" Republicans.  Roosevelt ran on a third-party ticket.  This, of course, effectively split the Republican vote, and newcomer Woodrow Wilson won a landslide victory, winning 40 states.  Taft actually won fewer states, and less of the popular vote, than Roosevelt did.

In 1932, as we have already seen, Herbert Hoover lost his re-election bid to Franklin Roosevelt.  Hoover had presided over the worst economic collapse in U.S. history.  Roosevelt, on the other hand, was a prominent and widely known figure in the Democratic party, was charismatic and trustworthy, and was able to unite the Democrats behind him.  He swept to victory in a landslide, and most historians would agree that virtually any Democrat in 1932 could have defeated Hoover.

Not until 1976 did another incumbent lose his re-election bid.  That year, Gerald Force ran against newcomer Jimmy Carter.  Ford was one of the most widely criticized presidents of the 20th century.  The only president in history to never win a presidential election as either a president or vice-president, Ford had been the House Minority Leader before ascending to the vice-presidency upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew in 1973.  A year later, when Nixon resigned, Ford became president.  Serving during a turbulent two years, which included an infamously unpopular pardon of Richard Nixon, Ford just barely managed to secure re-nomination by the Republican party in 1976, beating challenger Ronald Reagan by only a few percentage points and carrying only 27 states.  With Republican loyalty so obviously split, Ford had very little chance in the general election against Jimmy Carter.  Carter had charmed the nation with his genteel southern mannerisms, and had come to be viewed as the upstanding, morally-centered Washington outsider the country needed after the corruption of the Nixon years.

Richard Nixon was a crook

Four years later, after a tumultuous presidency that saw many in his own party abandon him, Carter faced an uphill battle for re-nomination in 1980.  He fought long and hard to beat down a challenge by Ted Kennedy, but once he had secured the Democratic nomination, he found himself pitted against Ronald Reagan, a charismatic and energizing figure who charmed and wowed his Republican base - and had nearly unseated his fellow Republican Ford four years earlier.  Reagan, of course, won in a landslide.

And finally, in 1992, George Bush found himself stinging from an infamously broken campaign promise about taxes, an economic recession, an unpopular war left unfinished, and a general feeling, among many Americans, that Bush was certainly no Ronald Reagan.  He too had a fight on his hands for renomination, then faced off against the charismatic and popular Bill Clinton.  In addition to this, Clinton was helped by a general negative feeling towards the Republican party, due to 12 straight years of Republican leadership, and 20 out of the previous 24 years.  Finally, much of the Republican vote was split by the first major third party candidate in several decades, Ross Perot.  Perot did not win any electoral votes, but he did take almost 20% of the popular vote - a significant number of which would almost certainly have gone to George Bush.  What it boiled down to was that the country was simply ready for something new.  Bill Clinton proved to be it.

Ross Perot would like to know if he can finish now.

In the end, when you take all of these historical trends together, even while keeping in mind that past trends don't necessarily predict future results, it would seem that Romney's chances of unseating Obama this fall are very slim indeed.  

Obama has the support of his own party and his own base.  The Republicans, on the other hand, are fighting internally and are, in many ways, in disarray as they seek to find an alternative to Obama.  History shows that without at least one of these trends being reversed, Obama will retain his seat.  

The situation we have this year, in fact, is not unlike the last time a sitting president ran for re-election - 2004.  That year, George W. Bush, though not widely popular and even regarded somewhat drearily by his own base, managed to win re-election, and it was largely due to the fact that the Democrats simply couldn't find a really charismatic, strong, and trustworthy candidate to run against him.  John Kerry was nominated, and Democrats voted for him, but the party enthusiasm was simply not there.  Many votes for John Kerry were no doubt given grudgingly.  The same thing seems to be afflicting the Republican party in 2012.

Short of an unprecedented historical situation, I believe these historical trends and patterns indicate that Obama will remain in the White House to serve a second term.  


Anonymous said...

I thought it was "As goes Ohio, so goes the nation."

Benjamin Harrison was a Phi Delta Theta at Miami University. :) Have I ever mentioned that?

Richard said...

As much as I hate to,I agree. The reality is, Americans rarely fire a sitting president. Those who have lost reelection came out of bruising, divisive challenges from inside their own party. Will not be the case this time. Americans don’t throw a president out of office unless they really like the alternative. And unlike Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992, Mitt Romney does not appear to have anywhere near the electric charisma of those two political giants.What conservatives won’t admit out loud is that Americans are usually reluctant to fire an incumbent president, even one who is struggling, because doing so implies that they were foolish to have been snookered by him the first time. People generally don’t like to admit they were wrong - even in the privacy of a polling booth.If anything, Romney’s effort to unseat a popular incumbent more closely resembles the failed referendum campaigns of Walter Mondale and Bob Dole, both of whom learned the hard way that the referendum was about them.
The truth is, no one knows what the outcome will be in November.
But we know history. And history is on Obama’s side.

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Richard! I agree with you fully. We won't know until November, but history is on Obama's side, whether that's for good or for bad.

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