Don't count the Democrats out

Steven Stark

August 14, 1991|By Steven Stark

IT'S 15 MONTHS to Election Day, and seldom have an opposing political party's chances of winning a presidential election been rated so low.

It's understandable why. The incumbent has consistently enjoyed favorable ratings of 70 percent or higher and led the nation through a popular war the Democratic leadership opposed almost unanimously. What's more, the Democrats are in disarray -- without an ideology, short of experienced candidates and losers in five of the past six elections.

Under these circumstances, it might seem foolhardy to expect anything other than a landslide victory for President Bush. But history teaches us that the election is likely to be far closer than expected. If events break their way, the Democrats have a chance to make a race of it.

Part of the reason that expectations are so low for the Democrats is that we have become accustomed to popular incumbents piling up 60 percent-to-40 percent landslides -- as Ronald Reagan did in 1984, Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Those outcomes, however, were something of an aberration.

In each recent case, the opposition party nominated its weakest general election candidate. Had the Democrats nominated Gary Hart instead of Walter F. Mondale in 1984 or Edmund S. Muskie rather than George S. McGovern in 1972, they still would have lost. But they likely would have cut the Republican edge to something like a more traditional 56 percent to 44 percent.

Similarly, if the Democrats in '92 can avoid nominating, say, a parochial Tom Harkin or Mario M. Cuomo, who would turn the election into a losing referendum on New York City, and turn to a new, fresh-face centrist, such as John D. Rockefeller IV, Bill Clinton or Al Gore, they can make a credible case to the voters and avoid a blowout.

The Republicans are also weaker than they look, if only because they have been in office for so long that they have begun to run out of ideas and momentum. If Bush is re-elected and serves out his term, he and Reagan will become the first presidents of the same party to serve consecutive eight-year terms since James Madison and James Monroe in the early 1800s.

Throughout our history, voters have often begun to tire of a party in power after 12 years, no matter how successful it has been. Politics tends to be fought within the 45-yard lines, and whether the issue is economics, the makeup of the Supreme Court or foreign policy, a party that holds the White House for that long tends to venture into the 40- or 35-yard lines, prompting an electoral correction.

Consider the 1944 election, the last contest comparable to the 1992 campaign. In that election, during a war no less, even the popular Franklin D. Roosevelt could muster only 53 percent in his bid for a fourth term against young newcomer Thomas E. Dewey. That result suggests that if the Democrats nominate a young centrist in 1992 to oppose the incumbent nominee of a party seeking its fourth straight term, they will enter the campaign with a base of 44 percent to 47 percent.

If that's true, the Democrats have an outside chance to win. After all, the economy may falter once more. Bush could become ill again, thereby pushing the unpopular Dan Quayle into the limelight. Bush's Supreme Court could overrule Roe vs. Wade; the Iran-contra investigations might turn up damaging evidence; the Democratic nominee might find his voice and rout the incumbent in televised debates.

The odds, of course, are heavily against the Democrats. They have shown little capacity for leadership these past three years. Presidents can control events and shift direction. Moreover, just because voters think their president spends too much time on foreign policy doesn't mean they'll elect somebody with no experience in the area.

But history teaches us that, sooner rather than later, the pendulum will swing back. Last campaign, the pundits were misled by early polls showing the Democrats ahead, ignoring the historical evidence that popular parties successful for two terms are usually rewarded with a third.

This time, the early polls show Bush way out in front. Still, if history repeats itself, there's trouble ahead for the GOP. Next year, against all expectations, we may yet have a race on our hands.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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