The Presidency isn't so much won as it is usurped
Wednesday, March 15, 2000
Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2000 12:56:08 -0600
Regarding Richard E. Berg-Andersson's commentary of 10 March 2000 [AND THEN THERE WERE TWO... Life on the Hustings without Bill Bradley and John McCain], I respectfully submit the following: I enjoyed reading your Commentary in "The Green Papers" and it is most insightful. Two points, however, come to mind that I believe you did not fully address.
First, Reagan defeated Carter and Mondale primarily due to the perception he was in the middle and "look what liberals did to us". He convinced the electorate that he was the real open minded man in the center. His history shows he was anything but. Clinton defeated GHW Bush on the perception that the economy was the worst since the Great Depression and that he was the economic and rational man in the middle. Again his history is anything but. I conclude that your points, while having a certain appeal that the machines of either camp would love to employ, are invalid: that it is, rather, giving the perception to a small portion of the electorate- approximately 15% to 20%- that the winning candidate is the man in the middle. Now this only applies to low or moderate voter turnouts with no third choice to split one or the other party as was done in 1980 with John Anderson splitting Democrats and 1992 with Ross Perot splitting Republicans. So much for my abstractions.
Secondly, I believe you grossly underestimate the impact of $2.00 per gallon gas prices during the summer. This will most surely be reflected upon the incumbent administration: and, while most pseudo-intellectuals will ignore a sexual dalliance and the odd graft, they all want to drive their SUV's and BMW's to hug a tree or protest something. A liberal-leaner is driven to the middle by their purse- always and without deference. This, I believe, will work to Governor Bush's advantage as there are two likely things, one of which will result in him gaining more votes.
Thing 1: the liberal-leaners who want to impress someone with their feelings will stay away from the polls and therefore take great comfort that they didn't elect the wrong guy and, in addition, protested the whole thing. OR Thing 2: the liberal-leaners will be pulled by their purse strings to vote for the outsider who couldn't do them any worse than the guy in there now. (Not unlike either 1980 or 1992).
All in all, I believe it will come down to the perception game and how well one or the other defines their opponent: after all- from 1960 to 1996- every winner did a better job than the loser of defining their opponents. The Presidency isn't so much won as it is usurped.
RICHARD E. BERG-ANDERSSON responds:
Dear Mr. Stansbury:
You raise some intriguing points about my 10 March Commentary but there are a few points you have made that I feel I must respond to.
First of all, I did not write at all about whether the presidential candidate who won the election really was or was not in the Center after the election; my point was that the winning presidential candidate DID, in fact, gain and then hold the support of the Center in the election campaign itself- regardless of what he did with (or, for that matter, TO) the Center once he first took office or was subsequently re-elected. In my opinion, the ability of a candidate to maintain his support by the Center is also prima facie evidence of an ability to better define his opponent (if a candidate is Right-leaning [for example, Reagan] and seizes and then controls the Center, he has- almost by definition- successfully painted his opponent as a "Leftie" [Jimmy Carter in 1980 is an even better example of this phenomenon than Walter Mondale in 1984: Carter was a Baptist deacon from the Deep South- say what you will about how conservative his policies really were, to the average Liberal of the Democratic Party at the time he was, most assuredly, NOT one of them (why else would Liberal icon Ted Kennedy have challenged a sitting President of his own Party?); yet Carter failed to then, once he had secured renomination against Ted Kennedy's challenge, paint Reagan as a "Rightie"- instead, Reagan successfully took the Center from an incumbent President Carter distracted by this unexpectedly strong challenge from his Left (remember that Carter beat up on Teddy early in the primaries, tarnishing the once nearly-invincible Kennedy image, but Teddy managed to hang on long enough to get "protest votes" in the middle primaries against what appeared to be an inevitable Carter renomination and then made a fair amount of headway in the later stages of the pre-Convention campaign: everything, of course, was not so front-loaded back then!) and managed to paint Carter as something of a "Leftie"... combine this with the Iran Hostage Crisis, for example, and Carter was doomed!!]; likewise, if a candidate is Left-leaning [e.g., Clinton] and gains and then holds the Center, he will have successfully defined his opponent as a "Rightie" (was George Bush the father really as far to the Right as the Democrats painted him in the '92 campaign?).
You write of approximately 15 to 20% of the electorate (I assume, from the context, that you are enumerating the average size of the Center)- yet it is precisely this very 15 to 20 % that holds the balance of power in most- if not all- presidential elections! Neither the Left nor the Right- however grouped in the major (and even major Third) Parties in any given election- ever holds an absolute majority: generally speaking, any candidate who wants to win the Presidency has to gain and then hold the support of the majority of the Center to have the majority of the popular vote in enough states which will, in turn, give that candidate a majority in the Electoral College. The mathematical formula for victory in a Presidential Election could not be much clearer: it is the variables that one plugs into that formula which provides the uncertainty of the outcome.
In this year's campaign, Vice President Gore- so far- seems better poised to take and control the Center he would need in order for him to be elected President: the strong challenge from Senator McCain to the eventual GOP nomination of Governor Bush shows, first of all, that the Republicans have more wounds to heal than the Democrats and, secondly, that Bush was pushed to the Right and has to come further from his side of the fence than Gore does to get to the Center either candidate will need to win this election. As I noted in my Commentary, I am not saying George Bush the son can't do this- but it would be foolhardy to say he doesn't have a very serious fight on his hands with Al Gore for that Center; likewise, it would also be folly to not admit that George W. Bush has an uphill battle in that contest.
As for what the "liberal-leaners" (as you call the Left) will do: they will- for the most part- vote for Gore ($2.00 gas prices or no- unless, of course, it gets so inconvenient [shortages, gas lines- which, for the time being, looks rather unlikely]: in an economy perceived as generally going good, time is more important than money); simply put, Gore is seen as Clinton's "Third Term" by those who DID overlook "a sexual dalliance and the odd graft" (much like, on the Right, George Bush the father was seen as Reagan's "Third Term" in 1988)- and these people, many of whom went to the mat for Bill Clinton despite scandal and innuendo, are not likely to stay away from the polls in droves (though watch what they do re: Al Gore in 2004 should Gore be elected this November- my feeling is that the Left will become very disappointed/disillusioned with a Gore Administration- again, much like what the Right came to think of Governor Bush's father in 1992) and they are highly unlikely to vote for an outsider in George Bush the son who so represents the antithesis of much of what they themselves support. As a result, I think both your "things"- which would, in your opinion, gain Governor Bush votes- in fact, won't.
Secondly, let me address this whole issue of low and moderate voter turnout and its effect on elections, since you mentioned it in passing in your "Vox Populi". MSNBC Political Analyst Jay Severin has an aphorism to which I happen to wholeheartedly subscribe: "If you don't vote... you don't count". This is not to say that, in my opinion, not voting is not a valid expression of one's political opinion- far from it! The problem is that, if one stays at home instead of going down to their local polling place and "not voting" (by "not voting" at the polls I mean pulling the curtain shut, not pulling ANY levers on a voting machine [or, its equivalent, casting a blank paper ballot] and then opening the curtain again), one simply doesn't show up in any election statistics that I can look at after the fact and then analyze: what is there to prove to me that a registered voter who one person might think didn't vote because he was so alienated by his dislike of any of the available candidates instead didn't vote because he/she was just too busy to even notice there was an election going on!
Much is always made about these low turnouts: the Left would gleefully point out that Reagan's two landslides were a "sham" because only 29% of the total registered voters actually voted for him; likewise, the Right has been nursing its wounds for seven years now by convincing themselves that Clinton winning less than 25% of the registered voters in his two elections was actually a significant statistic! (It's not!!... if only 3 people vote, the candidate who gets 2 votes beats the one who got only 1... turnout is irrelevant to the election result). I defy either the Left to prove to me that every single registered voter who did not bother to vote in 1980 or 1984 did so because they didn't like Reagan or, conversely, the Right to prove to me that every registered voter who did not vote in 1992 or 1996 stayed home because they were anti-Clinton; neither side can't... their speculating on why the turnout was so low is just that- speculation- and hence no better than my speculating that a lot of these registered voters simply plumb forgot it was Election Day or were out of town and forgot/were too busy to file for an Absentee Ballot in time or, for that matter, spent Election Day quaffing several in a bar and were therefore too drunk to even find their polling place! My explanations above for a low turnout are as good- and certainly as provable (as in "not provable")- as any of theirs.
The only way for an election data researcher (such as myself in my capacity as the main Researcher for "The Green Papers") to absolutely know for sure that a registered voter who did not vote, in fact, failed to exercise that right because he/she didn't want to vote for any presidential candidate is if that voter still goes to the polls and fails to vote for any presidential candidate while he or she is in the voting booth (and don't anyone tell me that this is a waste of time... if I see a significant difference between the number of people who showed up to vote at the polls and the total votes cast for a given office- believe me, I- for one- notice!... also, don't anyone tell me that no one would ever bother going to the polls to "not vote" because I myself have done so: there are at least 3 general elections I can remember among the 26 in which I have been eligible to vote so far [this year will be #27] in which I went into the booth, closed the curtains and then re-opened them without casting a single vote for ANYBODY on the entire ballot- I would be extremely surprised if I were to find out I had been alone in doing this!)
Again, in the context of my 10 March Commentary and your comments thereto, Mr. Stansbury, the number of voters who ultimately turn out at the polls in November really does not much matter and the Center will still, as usual, hold the key to this year's presidential election. And I, meanwhile, still hold to my contention that Governor Bush will have a more difficult time taking and keeping hold of this Center in 2000 than Vice President Gore will. But we shall see in less than eight months!
Thank you for your comments and your interest in "The Green Papers".
RICHARD E. BERG-ANDERSSON