Consider this: a new president gets elected just as the U.S. economy is tumbling off a cliff. The unemployment rate climbs to double digits under his watch, over 10 percent. The president’s party does poorly in the midterm elections.
A year before the next presidential election, the unemployment rate falls to around 8.5 percent. It keeps falling, too. The president insists his policies have helped to turn things around.
The opposition party selects a candidate who insists that no, the economy really is much worse off than people think, and focuses on those who haven’t been helped by the improving job numbers, those left behind by the so-called economic turnaround.
But voters, it turns out, no longer want to hear doom and gloom about the economy. They’re ready to feel optimistic again, and when the election results are in, the incumbent – whose re-election looked so precarious just a year earlier – wins in a historic landslide, taking 59 percent of the popular vote and carrying 49 states, losing only his opponents’ home state.
A prediction for November? No, not at all. The year was 1984, when President Ronald Reagan won a huge victory after proclaiming that it was “Morning in America.”
His opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, was left with the indignity of cartoons like the one portraying him at a campaign rally, asking the crowd, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” When the crowd roars yes, the cartoon showed Mondale putting his hand over the microphone, looking over at an aide, and asking, “How the hell did that happen?”
Am I suggesting that history will repeat itself in November, and that President Obama – who did, after all, come into office just as the economy was crashing to near-Depression era levels – is headed for another big victory?
The parallels to the early 1980s are eerily similar. The unemployment rate did rise above 10 percent under Obama, and his party got clobbered in the 2010 midterm elections – worse than Republicans got hit in 1982. The unemployment rate last November, one year before the upcoming presidential election, had fallen to 8.6 percent, nearly the same as it was under Reagan in November 1983.
And if the economy keeps improving this year, that could force the eventual GOP nominee – let’s assume it turns out to be Mitt Romney – to campaign on the theme that the economy actually is far worse than people think, and to focus on those who haven’t benefitted from the turnaround.
Will history be repeating itself? Is Obama headed for a Reagan landslide, and is Romney looking at a Mondale-style beating?
I have no clue. But I sure wish so many others kept an open mind about what’s likely to happen this year. It seems like every time I turn around, some spinmeister on the left or right has declared this race over and done with. The “Obama can’t win” and the “Romney is toast” columns keep coming in on a daily basis.
In a column titled “Economy Will be Obama’s Waterloo,” writer William Tucker writes gleefully about gas prices rising above $5 a gallon this summer, which he thinks will tank Obama’s re-election.
“So what can the Administration do between now and November? To be frank, they haven’t a clue,” he writes. “President Obama is a lawyer, not an economist or a scientist. His knowledge of energy is drawn from the chitchat in the faculty lounge.”
So come November, it’s President-elect Romney, correct?
Not quite, writes Erick Erickson, a conservative who writes the “RedState” blog. In his column “Romney Is Headed For A Loss in November,” he writes that Romney has failed to inspire conservatives to support him, and demonstrated his great weakness on Tuesday when he just barely won the Michigan GOP presidential primary – the state Romney grew up in and where his father, George Romney, was governor.
“Party leaders must have a death wish,” he wrote. “Mitt Romney continues to run an uninspiring campaign only able to win by massively outspending his opponents to tell voters how much worse the other guys are. That may work in the primary, but it will not work in a general election where the President of the United States won’t be outspent 5 to 1.”
Back and forth it goes. Obama can’t win because the economy is still too weak, and gas prices will hurt him even more.
But Romney can’t win because conservatives think he’s too moderate and hate RomneyCare, the universal health care plan that he supported as governor of Massachusetts … plus he can’t connect with blue collar workers.
Sometimes I think both candidates will lose. At least, that’s what the pundits make it sound like.
That’s the problem with a 24-hour spin cycle: if your columns are designed not to objectively observe the political landscape but to do a little p.r. for your team, and make it sound like the other side has all the weaknesses and your side all the strengths, then this is what you produce, I suppose.
As for me, either an Obama or Romney victory still seems likely.
Consider this: it seems that any respectable presidential candidate – and I see both Obama and Romney as respectable candidates – should be able to count on at least 46 percent of the vote.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis, another Massachusetts governor but this one a Democrat, lost the presidential race to George H.W. Bush. Dukakis ran what is generally considered a dismal campaign. He allowed himself to be videotaped riding in a tank, looking like a Munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz.” He ignored attack ads about his decision as governor to allow people serving life sentences in prison to be released on furlough as a way to keep them on good behavior.
And he still got 46 percent of the vote.
Twenty years later, John McCain ran for president in an extremely bad year for Republicans. Voters were ready for change after eight years of the GOP being in charge, the economy was starting to collapse, voters were getting tired of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President George W. Bush’s approval ratings had fallen into the high 20s. There were times when McCain seemed to be criticizing Bush more than Obama.
Even with all that headwind, McCain also got 46 percent.
The only time candidates have gotten less, it seems, is under special circumstances when their party’s voters abandon them in droves. Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Mondale in 1984 both got 41 percent of the vote in landslide losses to Reagan, when millions of Democrats left their party to support the Republican nominee. In 1996, Bob Dole got 41 percent in his losing race against President Bill Clinton, as millions of Republicans instead supported the independent candidacy of Ross Perot.
This year, there are no serious independent candidates on the horizon, and I don’t see either Obama or Romney winning over millions of voters from the opposition party. So I think both candidates can expect to start at 46 percent of the popular vote. That means the 7 percent of voters who are independents, like me, will decide the election in November.
I don’t see either candidate having a lock on those votes. If independents truly think the economy is still in bad shape and Obama isn’t doing enough to make it better, then he probably will lose – but most of the economic indicators appear to be headed in the other direction, toward improvement. So voters may be ready, as they were in 1984, to feel good about the economy again.
Romney may not thrill Tea Party conservatives, but I do see him appealing to moderate-leaning independents, and I doubt many of them will care about his great wealth or feel he’s out of touch. If Romney convinces them he can do a better job on jump starting the economy, he’ll win.
The bottom line: March is much too early to be writing off either candidate. So, please, let’s hold off, just a little longer, on those supposedly bold “ …. is headed for defeat” columns. I know they’re fun to read on MSNBC’s liberal talk shows and Fox News’ conservative ones, but we can wait a few more months, can’t we, before we assume the race is a done deal.
Contact Michael Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.