Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 3, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS....Via James Joyner comes a very odd assertion about presidential elections. David Broder, writing about a panel discussion at the annual conference of the American Political Science Association, says this:

It remained for David Mayhew, a Yale political scientist and author, to throw cold water on the whole debate. "There is no emerging majority," he said, at least when it comes to electing the president. Despite what happened to Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush, an incumbent president seeking reelection probably starts with a six-point advantage over his challenger. But when no repeat candidate is on the ballot, "the results are essentially like flipping a coin. The result of the previous election gives no clue."

The first part of Mayhew's statement seems reasonable. Since the end of World War II, sitting presidents have run for reelection eight times (Ford doesn't count since he wasn't elected in the first place), and six times they've won. So a 6-point advantage seems reasonable.

But when there's no repeat candidate the results are like flipping a coin? Mayhew apparently bases this on elections going back to Washington, but does anyone believe that 19th century election results are even remotely related to political behavior today? If you look just at post-WWII history instead here's what you get:

  • 1952: Party in power lost.

  • 1960: Party in power lost.

  • 1968: Party in power lost.

  • 1976: Party in power lost.

  • 1988: Power in party won.

  • 2000: Party in power lost.

The results are actually pretty striking: modern Americans don't seem to like keeping a single party in the presidency for more than eight years.

Mayhew seems to think that 2004 will be "a random result," just like 2000, but I think he's missing the boat. The 2000 election, if anything, shows just how strong voting instincts are among Americans: Al Gore was succeeding a popular president, he had a strong economy, and his opponent was inexperienced and considered none too bright. But even at that, all it did was make the election close. After eight years of a Democrat in the White House, Americans wanted a change.

The fates of Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr. show that these voting rules are far from infallible, but they are pretty robust. We followed the script in 2000, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised if we did the same in 2004. Doesn't seem random to me.

Kevin Drum 9:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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