Interviews October 2008

History’s Verdict

We called five historians and political scientists to ask them which presidential election this one most resembles. Here’s what they said.

"The election that immediately comes to mind is 1968—particularly the negativity aimed at Lyndon Johnson and the direction the country was going in because of the Vietnam War. What most commentators miss is that Johnson’s resignation wasn’t just about the war. He also was facing a serious economic problem that I don’t think he knew how to resolve. Nations were beginning to indicate that they wanted gold for the dollars they were holding, and there was no way the country could pay that off. Johnson’s problem was in thinking that he could finance both the war in Vietnam and the War on Poverty, and it turned out he couldn’t finance both. Already you had the early signs of stagflation setting in that Richard Nixon finally had to deal with.

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The Atlantic's 2008 Presidential Election Campaign Supplement
An Atlantic chronicle of the campaign so far.

“Even so, Johnson’s approval ratings then were far higher than Bush’s are today. People were genuinely surprised when Johnson announced he wasn’t running, because he could have conceivably done so.

“All the negativity should have made for an easier victory for Nixon over Hubert Humphrey. When Humphrey started out, the negative attitudes toward him because of Johnson and because of the war were a lot like what John McCain faces today. But the election turned out to be quite close. That’s largely because Johnson—probably too late—halted bombing and initiated negotiations with North Vietnam. He did that in October. Some people believe that had the election occurred three weeks later, Humphrey might have pulled it out. Viewed in that context, there’s still hope for McCain. But his prospects certainly don’t look good.”

Joan Hoff, professor of history, Montana State University, and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency

"There are certainly some ‘foreign-policy mess’ elections where no incumbent candidate was running. The elections of 1920, 1952, and 1968 all come to mind. In each instance, the incumbent party got clobbered. In ’68, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Democrats dropped 18 points from the ’64 election. In 1920, during the aftermath of World War I, the Democrats got thrashed, and in 1952 they got thrashed again. So for the ‘in’ party—the GOP— the signs look ominous.

“Historically speaking, the lack of an incumbent candidate should have an effect. Take the 53 relevant presidential elections since 1789. When an incumbent party runs an incumbent candidate, it keeps the White House more than two-thirds of the time—in 21 of 31 chances. When a presidential party does not have an incumbent running, it keeps the presidency 11 times and loses it 11 times. Those elections also tend to be very close. On the basis of that alone, and considering nothing else about today’s circumstances, the prediction for 2008 would be: close election, and you really don’t know which party will win.”

David Mayhew, Sterling Professor of Political Science, Yale University

"In some ways, this year is a mirror image of 1980. Jimmy Carter was the Democratic incumbent, but in many ways it was the GOP challenger, Ronald Reagan, representing change, and the electorate decided he was the one.

“One simple way to explain American elections is to look at the party identification of the electorate. Currently, Democrats are approaching historical levels of support. The ideology, or ‘mood,’ of the electorate is another significant variable. Right now that, too, is near its liberal high point. What’s interesting is that historically, party identification and mood tend to operate on different cycles. For example, after Watergate, the electorate self-identified as heavily Democratic, but the mood of the country in terms of the public’s policy preferences was actually growing more conservative. A few years later, Reagan was swept into office. More people began identifying as Republican, and for a time the two variables were in sync.

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