Back to previous post: Scents and sensibilities

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Attention, NYC friends of Scraps

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

October 25, 2008

Electoral history, pattern-making, and meaning
Posted by Patrick at 08:04 AM * 58 comments

Is the United States fundamentally “liberal” or “conservative”? Kind of a simple-minded question, but endlessly catnip to a certain kind of pundit. Earlier this week, Newsweek editor-in-chief Jon Meacham ran a cover story under his own byline, asserting that America is in its essence a “center-right” country—“a fact that President Obama would forget at his peril.”

I don’t want to tangle with such a silly argument—“center-right” compared to what? Canada? The Netherlands? Mongolia? Japan?—but I was struck by Meacham’s observation that “Republicans have dominated presidential politics—in many ways the most personal, visceral vote we cast—for 40 years. Since 1968, Democrats have won only three of 10 general elections (1976, 1992 and 1996).” As Ezra Klein observed, “Why 40 years? Presumably because that’s the time period that makes Republicans look best. In the last 48 years, Democrats have elected four presidents and Republicans have elected four presidents (Gerald Ford never won a national election).”

Right. But Meacham’s handwaving got me to thinking anyway. As he observed, of the last ten national elections, Republicans have won (or, at least, “took power following”) seven of them, and Democrats have won three:

1968 to 2004:
1968 - Nixon, R
1972 - Nixon, R
1976 - Carter, D
1980 - Reagan, R
1984 - Reagan, R
1988 - Bush, R
1992 - Clinton, D
1996 - Clinton, D
2000 - Bush, R
2004 - Bush, R

What intrigued me was what I noticed when I looked at the ten national elections before that:

1928 to 1964:
1928 - Hoover, R
1932 - Roosevelt, D
1936 - Roosevelt, D
1940 - Roosevelt, D
1944 - Roosevelt, D
1948 - Truman, D
1952 - Eisenhower, R
1956 - Eisenhower, R
1960 - Kennedy, D
1964 - Johnson, D

In other words, the exact opposite of 1968-2004: this time, we see seven Democratic victories and only three Republican ones. Okay, let’s back up ten more elections:

1888 to 1924:
1888 - Harrison, R
1892 - Cleveland, D
1896 - McKinley, R
1900 - McKinley, R
1904 - Roosevelt, R
1908 - Taft, R
1912 - Wilson, D
1916 - Wilson, D
1920 - Harding, R
1924 - Coolidge, R

Holy statistical improbability, Batman, it’s seven Republican victories and three Democratic ones. Okay, ten more:

1848 to 1884:
1848 - Taylor, W
1852 - Pierce, D
1856 - Buchanan, D
1860 - Lincoln, R
1864 - Lincoln, R
1868 - Grant, R
1872 - Grant, R
1876 - Hayes, R
1880 - Garfield, R
1884 - Cleveland, D

The seven-to-three pattern persists: seven Whig/Republican victories and three Democratic ones. Yes, to be a really strong pattern, you’d want this one to be seven-to-three in the other direction. On the other hand, once you’re back this far, it’s arguable that (in presidential politics at any rate) that Democrats are the “conservative” party and the Republicans are the sort-of, vaguely, if-you-squint-while-peering-at-them “liberal” party.

Beyond this, if you push back yet another ten elections to 1808, you get no further discernable pattern, largely because the very concept of “political parties” gets vague as you get closer to the dawn of the republic. (On what “tickets” did Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams run against one another in 1824? You could argue entertainingly about that for a while.)

Is there a point to this? Not much of one, only that you can adduce all kinds of windy generalizations about national character and ideological direction if you choose your data set carefully enough. Also, that sitting around a waiting room while Teresa undergoes lengthy cardiac tests is a circumstance conducive to long exercises in patternmaking.

When I finished with that one, for some reason, I then started thinking about Roman Catholics as national party nominees. The first one nominated to national office was, of course, Al Smith in 1928, who was crushed by Herbert Hoover; Smith carried only Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, an electoral map that now looks like something out of the Bizarro World. The second national nominee, and (strikingly) the only successful one to this day, was John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Since then, in the twelve national elections since Kennedy, there’s been a Catholic on a major party ticket exactly half the time:

William Miller - Republican vice-presidential candidate, 1964
Edmund Muskie - Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 1968
Sargent Shriver - Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 1972
Geraldine Ferraro - Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 1984
John Kerry - Democratic presidential candidate, 2004
Joseph Biden - Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 2008

It’s interesting to note that, although conservatives frequently talk as if the Catholic vote is theirs by right, the Republican Party has put a Catholic on the ticket only once in its entire history—Barry Goldwater’s running mate Bill Miller. The Democrats have done so seven times, six of them in the last fifty years. Three of those seven were Presidential nominees.

If Obama and Biden win, Joe Biden will be only the second Roman Catholic elected to national office in the 220 years of our constitutional republic. Given that Catholics have been the largest single denomination in the country since roughly forever, this is a striking fact, and probably a more meaningful one than my (or Jon Meacham’s) ledgerdemain with electoral numbers. Catholics were WASP America’s scary Other for a very long time. “Rum, Romanism, and rebellion!”

Comments on Electoral history, pattern-making, and meaning:
#1 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:05 AM:

Fascinating. How meaningful it may be I know no more than you do, as there simply aren't enough presidential elections, and too many factors go into deciding them, to fairly draw Meacham's kind of conclusions from it. But fascinating anyway.

The orientation of major US political parties as a left party and a right party is really quite recent: it didn't begin until FDR and the orientation wasn't complete until Reagan. Prior to that time both parties were coalitions across the spectrum, something that Al Smith's bizarro-world collection of states demonstrates: two northeastern states with lots of Irish Catholics, and six core southern states whose voters may have loathed Catholics but simply couldn't bring themselves to touch the "R" lever when memories of the "late unpleasantness" were still so strong.

#2 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:06 AM:

Catholics were WASP America’s scary Other for a very long time. “Rum, Romanism, and rebellion!”

Rum?

And why was rebellion so scary, considering how the Nation came to be?

#3 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:23 AM:

I guess this is a good time to link to 270towin. It's a collection of the electoral college maps for every election back to 1789. Definitely interesting browse through.

#4 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 09:59 AM:

You don't have to go far back to see electoral maps from bizarro-world. '92, '96, '00, and '04 all look pretty much like the map we expect to see in '08, with just a handful of swing states. But skipping past the electoral blowouts of '80-'88, the '76 map is unrecognizable. (Second John's recommendation for http://www.270towin.com)

Ford, the Republican, lost Texas but won Iowa, Illinois, Michigan (his home state), Vermont, and Maine (among others).

Carter, the Democrat, lost California but won the entire South except Virgina.

Intellectually I know that this was the "solid South," but it's hard to reconcile that there's been such a dramatic shift from an election that, you know, I remember.

Going much farther back, Taft in the three-way election of 1912 won only Vermont and Utah -- now there's an unlikely electoral coalition.

#5 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:13 AM:

Yeah, red state/blue state didn't really start to emerge until about 1992, though the underlying cultural patterns were there.

The main reason was that through most of the 20th century, the parties had ideological and regional alignments that pulled in sometimes orthogonal, sometimes conflicting directions. Democrats had Northern liberals, the labor vote, and also Southern white supremacists. Republicans had Northern rich people but, early on, also poor Southern blacks.

That pattern started to break as the black vote moved to the Democrats sometime in the 1940s, but what really changed things was the civil rights movement, Nixon's Southern Strategy and the defection of the white Dixiecrats to the Republican party, nationally culminating with Reagan's landslides of the 1980s. (On the local level, there are still remnants of the old order here and there, areas of the South where everyone is a registered Democrat and always votes Republican in national elections.)

You can't see much of a pattern in presidential elections of the Eighties because the pattern then was just that Republicans won everything. But when geographic variation emerged again, it was more like what we know today.

#6 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:15 AM:

If the Catholic vote belonged to republicans, you'd think they'd do better in RI and Mass. Like Al Smith did in 1928, I guess.

#7 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:25 AM:

Sounds like the old idea of the "pendulum swing" from liberal to conservative and back again has some substance behind it. The fact that the swings are forty years long is a little discouraging, though it means I will probably die during a liberal swing.

#8 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:25 AM:

there simply aren't enough presidential elections, and too many factors go into deciding them, to fairly draw Meacham's kind of conclusions from it

Whenever you study patterns in presidential elections, this is the big problem; data sets are small, because the elections happen infrequently enough that major historical changes happen before the sample size becomees large. Counting up R vs. D victories over decades is kind of nonsensical, because the parties now are not what they were then.

The silliest analyses (well, maybe not the silliest, but they're silly) are the ones about "bellwether states" that reliably vote with the winner over some vast stretch of time; they remind me of the pointless stats that sports announcers use to fill time.

#9 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:29 AM:

Xopher @ 7... I will probably die during a liberal swing.

And what a way to go!

#10 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:33 AM:

Matt McIrvin @ 8... Or, as Mark Twain, and apparently Disraeli before him, said:

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

#11 ::: noel ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:39 AM:

I had noticed a similar pattern here:

http://einsteinshair.blogspot.com/2005/04/mostly-dead-presidents.html

There's also something of a pattern to the candidates who win the elections that buck the current pattern..

It seems to me like the split is caused one one group gets fed up enough to tip the balance between the parties.

But it's really easy to read more into patterns like this than actually exist. I once saw David Hackett Fischer in a lecture sum all presidents to that time into a pattern of "Liberal" followed by "Conservative/Sleaze" follwed by "Clean Conservative". But it took a little shoehorning.

#12 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:52 AM:

Serge @2: And why was rebellion so scary, considering how the Nation came to be?

Oh, I dunno, Serge. What do you think the word "rebellion" might have meant to Americans in 1884?

#13 ::: Elissa Carey ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:58 AM:

(On what “tickets” did Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams run against one another in 1824? You could argue entertainingly about that for a while.)

Ooh, ooh. This is actually something that has arisen in my History class. This depends on which election you're looking at: 1820 or 1824? Because on the first, ALL the candidates were on the same ticket, but different factions. On the second, Adams was a "National Republican" and Jackson a "Democratic-Republican," the latter of which simply became Democratic.

#14 ::: Elissa Carey ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:58 AM:

(On what “tickets” did Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams run against one another in 1824? You could argue entertainingly about that for a while.)

Ooh, ooh. This is actually something that has arisen in my History class. Adams was a "National Republican" and Jackson a "Democratic-Republican," the latter of which simply became Democratic.

#15 ::: Elissa Carey ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:00 AM:

(Please ignore #13; even with previewing, I hit "post" without realizing that it was specifically 1824 that was being referenced. D'oh.)

#16 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:22 AM:

The first thing that strikes me when I play around with 270towin is that it's been a long time since the solid south was all that solid.

So, from 1880 (when Jim Crow was well and truly in place and reconstruction was over) to 1924, the states of the old Confederacy gave their votes to Democrats like clockwork, with Kentucky and Tennessee occasionally dissenting.

But the first cracks show in 1928, when Hoover's landslide included the complete defection of the border states leaving Al Smith with only the deep south (And Massachusetts.)

Of course, then Roosevelt wins all the southern states, but he also wins every single state outside of the Northeast in his first two campaigns, and wins slightly less dramatic landslides in '40 and '44.

And then, in the first competitive election after the war, most of the Deep South goes to Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats, while the border south goes to Truman. And from there it's all downhill, as Stevenson takes the deep south and splits the border south with Eisenhower, and the the map reverses when Goldwater takes the Deep south and Johnson takes everything else.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, it just seems odd that the concept of "The Solid South" seems so prevalent, when, by my count, it's only actually shown up in 3 out of 13 non-landslide elections in the last 80 years.

Of course, the fact that two of those elections happen to have been the last two may have something to do with why people are talking about it.

#17 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:23 AM:

If you flip a fair coin ten times, about 17% of the time, you'll get seven or more heads. So getting a run of seven out of ten victories is consistent with there being no advantage for the Republicans at all, just luck. (I suspect that as you go further back than 40 years, the system is so different that it's hard to learn anything from.)

A good reason to expect about 50/50 elections over time is that the two parties change positions and candidates in order to get there. Both parties are quite capable of moving in whatever direction they need to get back to appealing to about half the voters. Issues for which the voters are overwhelmingly on one side soon become issues where both parties have the same position on that issue, as with continuing the existence of Social Security and Medicare, continuing an activist, interventionist foreign policy, continuing the war on drugs, being rid of Jim Crow laws, etc. My prediction is that in 20 years, both parties will accept gay marriage, too--look at the demographics of opposition to gay marriage, and you see that it has a lot to do with age.

#18 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:37 AM:
But it's really easy to read more into patterns like this than actually exist. I once saw David Hackett Fischer in a lecture sum all presidents to that time into a pattern of "Liberal" followed by "Conservative/Sleaze" followed by "Clean Conservative". But it took a little shoehorning.

Would have worked better as Dragon, corrupt Phoenix, reborn Phoenix.

#19 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 11:42 AM:

Serge @2: Seconding Avram @12, on "rebellion"--the "Romanism" was Catholicism, of course, possibly in part because a lot of newly-immigrated Irish Catholics were Democrats? The "rum" identified the Democrats as anti-Prohibition. (Lots of new immigrants drank, too, according to the stereotype, so that one was kind of a twofer.)

I do love the 1884 Presidential election. Whenever I get too depressed about the current state of American politics, I go look up James G. Blaine, "the continental liar from the state of Maine."

#20 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:01 PM:

Serge @2: I presume you're not from the U.S. In the presidential election of 1884, a Republican speaker in New York City declared that the Democrats were "the party of rum, Romanism, and rebellion," for exactly the reasons identified by Mary Frances @19. But enough voters were offended by this that it tipped New York state to the Democrats, and that was enough to carry the election, resulting in the first electoral vote victory of a Democratic president in 28 years.

Elissa @13/14: No, Patrick is right, it's much, much more complicated than that. "National Republican" for Adams in 1824 is an anachronism applied to simplify matters. All five (eventually whittled to three) major candidates in 1824 were members of what is now referred to as the Democratic-Republican Party (that name too is anachronistically appplied, but that's another story), insofar as being a "member" of a "party" meant anything in those informal times. Only after the election, when policy divisions began to sort themselves out into pro- and anti-administration lines, did the term "National Republican" for Adams supporters begin to arise, and it wasn't in common use until the 1832 election. At which point Adams wasn't one; he ran for Congress that year on the Anti-Masonic line.

#21 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:21 PM:

Avram @ 12... Bon sang, mais c'est bien sûr!, which is the French for "Duh!" (Now you understand why books translated into French are so much thicker.)

Mary Frances @ 19... Bratman @ 20... I've been living in the USA since the week that Bush Père officially became President, but there are still lacunae in what I know about my country. That being said, the Democratic Party was the Party of rum? Sounds good to me.

#22 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 12:22 PM:

If Obama and Biden win, Joe Biden will be only the second Roman Catholic elected to national office in the 220 years of our constitutional republic.

Senators and representatives also count as "national office" as I'm familiar with the phrase. Otherwise there are only the two national offices, these days elected together on one ticket.

#23 ::: Lisa ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:01 PM:

I tend to agree with the assertion that the US is, at least recently, a center-right country. Unlike Jon Meacham, however, I see this as something that needs to change rather than a reason to throw up my hands and declare any and all liberal reforms impossible.

#24 ::: Jason B ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:41 PM:

Since then, in the twelve national elections since Kennedy, there’s been a Catholic on a major party ticket exactly half the time:

William Miller - Republican vice-presidential candidate, 1964
Edmund Muskie - Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 1968
Sargent Shriver - Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 1972
Geraldine Ferraro - Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 1984
John Kerry - Democratic presidential candidate, 2004
Joseph Biden - Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 2008

Maybe someone's already brought this up, but this list seems to be missing:

Ronald Reagan - Republican presidential candidate, 1980
Ronald Reagan - Republican presidential candidate, 1984

A fascinating post, regardless.

#25 ::: Jeff Davis ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:43 PM:

Dan Blum @ 18: Except that Dragon comes after Phoenix, not before.

#26 ::: Q. Pheevr ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:47 PM:

t’s interesting to note that, although conservatives frequently talk as if the Catholic vote is theirs by right, the Republican Party has put a Catholic on the ticket only once in its entire history—Barry Goldwater’s running mate Bill Miller.

The generalization here seems to be (as long as we're forcing things into patterns) that the Republicans think Catholics belong on the Supreme Court, not in the executive.

#27 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 01:58 PM:

Jason B @ 24:

While Reagan's father was Catholic, Ronald Reagan himself was not. From the "Reagan Facts" page of the Reagan Foundation:

Although raised in his mother's Disciples of Christ denomination, beginning in 1963 Reagan generally attended Presbyterian church services at Bel-Air Presbyterian Church, Bel-Air, California. He became an official member of Bel-Air Presbyterian after leaving the Presidency. In addition, Reagan stated that he considered himself a "born-again Christian."

#28 ::: Jason B ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 03:39 PM:

Peter Erwin @ 27:

That's interesting--everything I've ever heard had Reagan pegged as the second Catholic president. It seems that idea (what I would have considered knowledge) is no more true than is the Obama-Muslim meme. It was certainly part of the dialogue surrounding the campaign in 1984 (I don't quite remember the campaigns in 1980). Strange.

But I guess I wasn't the most politically engaged ten-year-old in 1980. Maybe I missed something.

#29 ::: Elizabeth Coleman ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 04:58 PM:

Having grown up in a fairly liberal, Catholic family, I'd say that Catholics tend to be Democrats because we like social programs that help the poor, helpless and downtrodden. I also like to think that because Catholicism is a world-spanning faith, we don't fall victim to the uber-patriotism that comes when your identity is subsumed in nationalism. And, we're all about science. Jesuits=latte-sipping intellectuals of Christianty!

Abortion and other moral/social issues are where they get conservative, but even then, I've heard of clergy begging their parishes not to cast their votes based solely on abortion.

#30 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 05:23 PM:

Serge @21: Well, it was all about the "temperance" (really prohibition) movement, which was associated with Republicans from the beginning, as its advocates tended to be the same kind of people who were strong abolitionists (of slavery). If you've read the chapter of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn in which Pa Finn takes the pledge (against drinking) and then suffers a quick relapse, you'll see what the temperance folks were worried about and up against.

Anyway, they finally got Prohibition passed in 1919, which resulted in a huge illicit bootlegging industry, so by 1928 one of the big issues was: Repeal Prohibition or not? Smith (D) was for Repeal, though the party split on the issue; Hoover (R) was against.

Jason @28: Though I remember those elections well, I never heard a claim that Reagan was Catholic. I don't think I even knew that his father was.

#31 ::: Nenya ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 05:39 PM:

Ho-leee frell, I had not realized that Nixon and Reagan got such huge landslides!

I...wow. Surprised. I guess that's why everbody (for a certain value of "everbody") still thinks Reagan was so great--they thought so at the time, and he really did have a mandate. Nixon, though, I know little enough about to know what was going on there.

#32 ::: Del Cotter ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 06:05 PM:

They were landslides in terms of the electoral vote, but the electoral college had a large amplifying effect in those elections. GWB's two squeakers are unusual in the modern era in being close both popularly and collegiately. Usually the EC ensures a comfortable majority even if the popular vote is less than 50%. See this bar chart for details.

#33 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 06:23 PM:

I hope all went well for Teresa today.

I suspect that folks looking back 100 years from now may find today's party coalitions (both demographic and ideological) rather odd as well. It's easier to see the seams in a coalition when you're well removed from it; and the issues that inspire large-scale collective campaigning will probably change a fair bit between now and then.

Catholics (of the more traditional variety, at least) are one group of folks whose political views tend not to fit neatly into either of the two coalitions. That's been the case for a while; when I think of folks like G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, or for that matter John Paul II, their political views all diverged in significant ways from the platforms of the major US or British parties of the time.

The Libertarian "two-dimensional political model" is another fairly well-known political philosophy that doesn't fall neatly into the templates of the two major parties.

And those are just two examples; there are many more actual or potential alternative coalitions of interest out there. In a multi-dimensional political space, it isn't just the "center" that's a relative concept-- "left" and "right" are too.

#34 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 06:39 PM:

I have spent entirely too much time waiting for heart tests this year. My thoughts and prayers are with Teresa.

People have knocked around the idea of political cycles for a long time. Arthur Schlesinger Sr. was the proponent of a roughly 30 year cycle. One possible causal mechanism is the formation of political opinions and alignments in late teens/early adulthood. The length of the cycle would be driven by the time gap between a cohort forming political alignments and having maximum political influence.

I have also read of 12 year and other cycles. Generally, when some professor or other publishes their theory, the next election smashes it neatly.

#35 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:00 PM:

How old is the maxim "politics makes for strange bedfellows"? (Looks like it's from 1837.)

#36 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:11 PM:

So, some pundit at Newsweek is asserting that "America is in its essence a “center-right” country" ?

That explains the 10-to-14%-point lead for Obama, who strikes me as the center-right candidate.

#37 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2008, 10:42 PM:

Geekosaur asks:

"How old is the maxim "politics makes for strange bedfellows"? (Looks like it's from 1837.)"

I found an 1800 usage of an essentially equivalent expression in William Gifford's Baviad and Maeviad, courtesy Google Book Search (which I'm sure will eventually turn up all kinds of word and expression usages prior to the ones manually compiled in past dictionaries.)

This is from the sixth edition, so it could possibly be pushed back if earlier editions used it too.

#38 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 12:11 AM:

Jeff Davis @25:

Dammit, you're right. And it should have been decadent Phoenix, not corrupt. It still would work just as well - trying to fit so few data points into that kind of fine-grained pattern is a useless exercise, especially when the categories are ill-defined.

#39 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 09:03 AM:

Reagan's 1984 landslide was about 60/40 in the popular vote. That's what it takes to get you almost the whole map; it's about as extreme as presidential elections get.

Reagan was also running against an uncharismatic challenger at a high point in his popularity, after the recession of his first term had given way to a boom, and before the second-term scandals that broke around '86.

Over his whole administration, Reagan was about as popular as Bill Clinton, maybe a little less so in the second term--he was loved by many but was also a polarizing figure, deeply loathed on the left. But timing counts for a lot, and the landslides in both 1980 and 1984 contribute to the mythmaking.

If there had been a presidential election in November 2001, I expect George W. Bush would have gotten 538 electoral votes.

#40 ::: Cat ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 09:33 AM:

The Republicans are descended from the Whigs? *compares with British cousin, Lib Dems*
*boggles*

#41 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 10:38 AM:

Bob @36:

Yeah, that reminds me of the obvious rejoinder to the people who say they hope the Republicans aren't destroyed utterly because the US needs a sensible right-wing party: "The US already has one, and they're called the Democrats."

If today's Republicans are someday completely banished from national power (which won't happen any time soon--I guess better than even odds of a midterm resurgence in 2010 if the economy isn't miraculously healed), the Democrats will likely split into two parties: perhaps a culturally liberal, economically corporatist, quasi-libertarian party and a social-democratic left party. One of those parties might be called "the Republican Party," but I wouldn't deign to guess which one.

#42 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 10:58 AM:

As for patterns, I think it was James Nicoll who pointed out recently that the last time the Republicans won the presidency with neither a Bush nor a Nixon on the ticket was 1928.

Meaningless, of course, but it helps me not take other apparent patterns too seriously.

#43 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 11:26 AM:

Coincidentally, I've just run across a reference to Meacham in this New Yorker article:

Jackson’s stormy and controversial Administration is the subject of Jon Meacham’s engrossing and admiring “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” which Random House will publish next month. Jackson retired the national debt. He killed the Bank of the United States. He made free use of the pocket veto. When the Supreme Court ruled against his plan to force the Cherokee to move to lands west of the Mississippi, Jackson went ahead anyway. Meacham thinks that most of what Jackson did was good for the country, a conclusion helped by the fact that he pretty much ends his story the day Jackson left office, instead of, say, nine weeks later, when the nation’s financial system collapsed.
#44 ::: Izabella ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 01:41 PM:

There are actual mathematical theorems (Ramsey theory, in particular Szemeredi's theorem and its variants) to the effect that if you choose your data from a large enough set, you will be able to find any pattern you want.

However, much of this applies only to sets whose size is beyond astronomical.

Best wishes to Teresa.

#45 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 01:51 PM:

Wesley @ 43... I've just run across a reference to Meacham in this New Yorker article

What has Beth Meacham been up to again?
("Serge, it's Jon Meacham.")
Oh.
Nevermind.

#46 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 01:59 PM:

Shakespeare used the expression "strange bedfellows" in The Tempest.

Was he the first person in the world to have said it? Maybe there is no way of knowing.

#47 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 02:22 PM:

I'm wondering if the Pendulum theory is still applicable (assuming it ever was) or if the center-right average will maintain.

During their recent six years of Dominance, the Republicans seem to have developed remarkably efficient techniques for getting around the longstanding escapement mechanism's limitations based on "we can't be _too_ extreme because the other guys might someday be In Power". (With nearly disastrously-harmful results, IMHO.)

I can hope that if/when the Democrats get into a similar Power Postition (controlling both the Legislative and the Administrative branches) they won't conserve (even though they _have_ become the conservative Party) these techniques, but ... they _are_ Politicians, and also only too human.


#48 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 03:39 PM:

Don @ #47, I had one of the "Divided Government Necessary" zealots arrive on my blog a few days ago. He's so firm on his principles that he'll vote for McCain after voting for Kerry in 2004.

The mind (or my mind, anyway) boggles at the disconnect which allows one to vote for each of those candidates to attain such a lofty goal. It's not like Kerry and McCain think alike.

#49 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 04:12 PM:

Cat @40, I'm not sure wether there were any direct connections between the 19th century US party called the Whigs, and the original Whigs- they might simply have copied the name.

Then again, aren't the Australian Liberals actual cousins of the LibDems?

#50 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 05:00 PM:

Wesley, #43: Oh, SNAP!

Don, #47: It's become increasingly clear that the Republicans (and their supporters) disregarded those limitations because they never expected to be out of power again. They honestly believed* that they had a permanent lock on America.

WRT the Democrats having control of both the White House and Congress, I'm betting that Obama will have enough political savvy to rein in the worst excesses of his co-politicos. IMO the golden phrase here is going to be along the lines of, "You want to STAY in power, don't you?" Which, of course, they do. Paradoxically, the best way of doing that is not to run amok with the power you have, as the Republicans have proven.**

* See also, "creating our own reality".

** See also, "short-term gain vs. long-term thinking".

#51 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2008, 10:49 PM:

I actually expect a Democratic Congress to have more backbone in standing up against a Obama than against Bush, because they won't be afraid of being tarred as soft on terrorism.

#52 ::: Richard Klin ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2008, 02:46 PM:

It's true; looking at old election results (and even not so old) is akin to bizarro world. I remember during the election results of 1980, Tom Brokaw--noting that Massachusetts and Mississippi were both in the Reagan column--intoned that those two states hadn't been in the same column in a long, long time. But both had gone for Carter in 1976.

One odd little factoid that I've never been able to figure out is that Herbert Hoover carried Pennsylvania in 1932.

#53 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2008, 09:40 AM:

Cat @45 & Raphael @49: The Whigs of the 19th century US had no direct connection with the British Whigs, but they borrowed the name because they had something important in common. The 18th century British Whigs had been the party opposed to strong monarchial power*, and the American Whigs were a motley coalition of conflicting interest groups with only one thing in common: They all hated President Jackson.

Both Whigs and Democrats had pro- and anti-slavery wings, but when US politics re-sorted itself (roughly) on pro- vs anti-slavery lines in the mid 1850s, the bulk of northern Whigs wound up in the Republicans, though it took many of them several roundabout years to get there. The Republicans took the same spot in the party ecosystem, but they're not really the same party.

And today's Lib Dems in the UK have even less connection with their Whigs. Almost all remaining Whigs in the Liberal Party went Unionist in the 1886 split and ended up with the Conservatives. Today's Conservatives are descendants of both the Tories and the Whigs. The Lib Dems come from the 19th century Radicals. And the spiritual ancestors of the Labour Party - or what used to be the Labour Party; Blair re-invented them as thoroughly as Nixon did the Republicans - didn't have the vote back then.

*They favored aristocratic power instead, but I doubt the Americans were thinking of that.

#54 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 05:32 PM:

All those early postings mentioning Rum made me think of the grand old phrase "Rum, Sodomy & the Lash" -- title for Pogues album, but I assume coming from some old anti-Catholic rantings. Add in dinosaurs, and it's a Making Light meme!

As for Reagan, most of us in Northern California hated him much earlier, from his time as state governor.

#55 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 05:41 PM:

#54 grand old phrase "Rum, Sodomy & the Lash" -- title for Pogues album, but I assume coming from some old anti-Catholic rantings.

Nope. Royal Navy ranting. In the old days the Navy was famously run with Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash.

(Josephus Daniel took away the rum and congress took away the lash, but ....)

#56 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 05:42 PM:

Faren, the phrase was used to describe the British Navy. I am not sure if Churchill originated the phrase or just used it.

#57 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 05:45 PM:

From memory, the Winston Churchill quote is something along the lines of "Glorious British Naval tradition? Don't talk to me about the glorious British Naval tradition, it's all rum, sodomy, and the lash."

#58 ::: Susan Nunn ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2008, 11:23 AM:

from blog: "I was struck by Meacham’s observation that 'Republicans have dominated presidential politics—in many ways the most personal, visceral vote we cast—for 40 years. Since 1968, Democrats have won only three of 10 general elections (1976, 1992 and 1996).'"

I think a case can be made that the philosophical tide turned in 1992, and that Democrats in fact have really won 5 of the last 10 elections. Gore won the popular vote in 2000, and evidence is very strong that Kerry carried Ohio in 2004, which would have made him the victor. I disagree with Meacham's overall conclusion of a "center-right" nation. Yes, the nation was more Right-wing in the 80s, that cannot be denied, but I think it had mostly to do with cultural symbolic issues -- it was a reaction to the 1960s. People still supported programs like social security and wanted an increased minimum wage, and polls show that most opposed our involvement in Nicaragua. But the populace had taken on punitive mindset regarding the Black underclass and also were hawks on the Soviet issue.

Since the early 1990s, our nation has become more liberal, especially among the youth. The election of Obama is not an aberation but the result of that trend.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="http://www.url.com">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.















(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.