Political Arithmetic


March 11, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington.- We are less than 12 months from the New Hampshire primary and less than certain that we can still say America has a two-party system. For now, we seem to have a one-and-a-half party system, with party competition stopping short of the presidential level.

Electing a president has been difficult enough for Democrats since 1952. They have been in a 10-election slump, during which they have played .300 ball, a winning percentage .101 points below that of last year's Atlanta Braves. (A shift of a few votes in 1960 and 1976 would have made the Democrats one-for-10 from 1952 though 1988.)

Defeating an incumbent president is usually hard. It has never been done in the afterglow of a successful war. Desert Storm was the most clear-cut foreign-policy victory since the post-World War II years, when America considered itself at the wheel of the world and victories were assumed. The psychological lift from Desert Storm will be great.

Since America's two-party competition -- the world's oldest -- coalesced in 1856, the two parties' presidential candidates have generated 1,208,665,869 votes. Republicans have received 51.8 percent, Democrats 48.2 percent. But since 1952 Republicans have received 53.3 percent, Democrats 46.7. And since 1968 the split is Republicans 55.1 percent, Democrats 44.9.

The modern era of presidential politics began in 1952 when Truman retired, breaking the Democratic Party's organic link with FDR and pre-war politics. Beginning with 1952, Democrats have lost seven of ten elections, and five of six. Since 1952 Republicans have won 69 percent of the electoral votes; since 1968, 79 percent.

In the ten elections since 1952, 32 states that today have 322 electoral votes (52 more than the 270 needed to win) have gone Republican seven or more times. Twenty-seven states with 261 votes have done so eight or more times.

An even clearer era of Republican ascendancy began in 1968. Since then, Democrats have won only one election, and that by a whisker, in 1976, barely beating an accidental president and a Watergate-weakened party.

Since 1968, 40 states with 430 electoral votes have voted Republican in four or more of the six elections; 33 states with 333 votes have voted Republican five of six times; 20 states with 188 votes have voted Republican all six times.

In the six elections 1968-1988, there were 306 distinct contests (50 states and the District of Columbia, six times). The score: Republicans 241, Democrats 60.

Republicans are overwhelmingly favored to carry 147 Southern and Sun Belt electoral votes. If Republicans also carry California's new total of 54 (20 percent of 270), then Democrats must carry 80 percent of the remainder, a virtually insuperable challenge.

Democratic prospects are brighter below the presidential level. They are apt to stay that way even if Republicans try to ''nationalize'' the election with a national strength theme. Politics probably will remain stubbornly local.

In 1992 Democrats will be in the 38th consecutive year of control of the House. No Republican now serving there has ever been in the majority. And the GOP lost House seats in four of the last five elections.

In 1990 two-thirds of congressional incumbents won with reduced percentages. But Republicans will get no help from redistricting. Democrats control 30 state legislatures (up from 29 last year), Republicans control just five (down from nine). It is probable that 2002 will be the 48th consecutive year of Democratic control of the House.

The Democrats' 56-44 control of the Senate is more vulnerable. Of the 34 seats to be contested in 1992, 20 are held by Democrats. Eleven of the 20 Democrats are freshmen and nine of the 11 won in 1986 (during the mid-term sag of Reagan's second term) with less than 53 percent of the vote.

Regarding the presidency, even the Census Bureau has bad news for Democrats. Except for Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman (both elevated to the presidency first by a death), every Democrat ever elected president since the emergence of the Republican Party has been from an Atlantic Coast state. Today population is moving West faster than ever. Of the ten fastest growing cities in the 1990s, seven were in California, two in Texas, one in Arizona.

If Democrats need any other depressing numbers, here are some: Since 1968, Texas has voted Republican five of six times, California voted Republican all six times and monomaniacal Arizona has voted Republican in every election since 1948.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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