Beyond Election Day 2008: A tough act to follow

In modern times, same-party Presidential succession has been a difficult task. Since FDR, no American President has succeeded a President of his party and went on to serve two full terms.

While Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George Bush were able to follow Presidents of their own party, all of them struggled in their administrations: after ascending to the White House after the death of FDR, Truman barely won election for his full term, Johnson was soon mired in Vietnam and dropped out of the 1968 election, Ford lost his bid for a full term, and Bush struggled through a wildly-swinging ’88 campaign, only to lose re-election. Adalai Stevenson, Richard Nixon (1960), Herbert Humphrey, and Al Gore all lost their efforts to keep the White House in the hands of their party.

That’s not a very good record, but there’s may be a good reason. In his book “Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics”, James A. Stimson looks at American attitudes on issues, as indicated by research data obtained from decades of American voter opinion surveys. His findings show a clear cyclical pattern in the mindsets of the American public, showing the presence of a political center in which a bloc of voters oscillate between the parties in sufficient number to sway Presidential elections between the two major parties. 

Based upon overall identification on issues, his research indicated that voters shifted towards the left on positions by just under 15% during the Eisenhower administration, 12% during the Reagan-Bush tenure, and towards the right by about 8% during the Clinton years. While it suggests voter opinions shift gradually under GOP administrations, they shift more quickly under Democratic administrations – which might help to explain the electoral romps of the GOP in the 1978 and 1994 elections, both presidential first mid-terms.

In looking at the average of polling data on public support for spending for education, health care, urban programs, and welfare programs, as well as increased taxes, voter support for these positions dropped to an average in the low 40s in the latter days of the Carter administration, then peaked near sixty percent when Clinton took office, only to shift back below the fifty percent mark at the end of the Clinton administration.

Stimson’s findings point out a major reason for these shifts: when a Presidential administration acts on an issue, voter opinions on that issue begin to shift away from that position. Stimson provides plenty of data to back up this position. We can see wide swings over a number of issues, typically shifting only when the party in the White House changes or significant actions like the 1982 tax cuts or 1996 welfare reform take place. Typically once an action is taken to address an issue where voter support has soured, or an administration has been seated which promises action on those issues, voters feel less averse to that issue.

While the Bush administration was often not very conservative, it was perceived as that. Domestic spending, long a concern of fiscal conservatives, skyrocketed, swelling the national debt and annual deficits and souring voters on the GOP brand name. But Stimson's data shows the same shift away from the Presidential party post-Watergate for Republicans and during the Carter and Clinton years for Democrats.

Those who argue the best thing for the GOP would be for McCain to lose may be right. The GOP quickly recovered from the post-Watergate years thanks to Carter’s blunders, but its party ranks withered and it lost considerable ground between the second Reagan mid-term and the election of Bill Clinton. If McCain pulls off a small win, a battered GOP may not be of much help to him, or be able to regain ground lost in recent years.

However, there is not a single Democratic President since FDR whose administrations went smoothly – Truman lost Congress and struggled to resolve the Korean War, JFK dealt with the Bay of Pigs, a growing Vietnam War and divides in his party over civil rights, Johnson with Vietnam, civil rights and widespread urban violence, Carter with foreign and energy policies and a massive recession, Clinton with his bungled first two years and the Monica Lewinsky affair. This doesn’t bode well for an Obama administration. Not only that, but history usually dictates that a party’s upswing will not last for long – typically two election cycles before stagnation sets in or the course reverses itself.

This should give both candidates, and their parties, much to think about and watch out for over the next two and four years.

3 Response to "Beyond Election Day 2008: A tough act to follow"

  1. Anonymous 23/10/08 20:46
    God knows that has been in every Democrat's prayer for the past 6 years too.
  2. Earl Capps 23/10/08 21:14
    Anon - what has been in their prayers? I covered a lot of ground in this article.
  3. uncrab mg 26/10/08 19:51
    I know what is in my prayers

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