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.

“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.

“Mood is more of a long-term cycle, while party identification—much like presidential approval ratings—is a more immediate response to events in the news. Right now, party identification and mood are in sync for the Democrats the way they were for the Republicans in 1980. That bodes very well for their chances in November.”

Robert Erikson, professor of political science, Columbia University

"I’d say there are many similarities between the 2008 election and those conducted in 1960 and 1980. In 1960, a relatively lesser-known U.S. senator faced a more experienced vice president. Social issues, particularly school integration, divided the country. There was a poverty gap. Voters had two choices: more of the same or change; a seasoned candidate versus a less experienced one. A bare plurality of Americans chose the latter. They took a chance and voted for Kennedy despite his Catholicism and his age.

“In 1980, a candidate known more for his acting than for public service faced an unpopular incumbent president, a good man but a poor leader. Americans were in a foul mood. The economy was stagnant and inflated; the country looked weak, and its leadership of the free world had suffered. Gas prices had risen sharply. Racial and gender divisions were taking their toll. Ronald Reagan noted matter-of-factly that conditions did not have to be this way; ‘after all ... we are Americans,’ he said. Reagan spoke to Americans’ pride in their country and its political tradition; he promised a return to basic values, the good old days. The choice was between change and more of the same. Americans took a chance and elected the actor-turned-politician, despite his age and his ideological fervor.

“In 2008, a young, inexperienced senator is taking on a career patriot, a former naval officer, a senator who knows Washington. The public mood is sour; gas prices have gone through the roof; the economy is in recession; and an incumbent president has higher disapproval ratings than any of his predecessors. Obama promises to change politics and policy, and to unite what ideological, partisan politics have divided for three decades; to end the war; to restore America’s image around the world; to make health care affordable; to tend to the environment; and to keep jobs in the U.S. Not surprisingly, his appeal seems to resonate with an unhappy, disgruntled electorate.”

Stephen Wayne, professor of government, Georgetown University

"In several respects, the presidential election that most closely resembles this year’s race is the 1952 contest between Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. As is the case in 2008, neither the incumbent president, Harry Truman, nor his vice president, Alben Barkley, was on the ballot. But in 1952, it was the Democratic candidate, Stevenson, who had the problem of an extremely unpopular incumbent president from his party: in 1952, Truman’s approval rating was similar to George Bush’s today. And like John McCain in 2008, Stevenson had to deal with an unpopular war with no end in sight—in his case, the Korean War. Finally, Stevenson was running against a candidate with extraordinary personal appeal: Dwight Eisenhower, the former commander of allied forces in Europe during World War II. Barack Obama is not a national hero, as Eisenhower was. In fact, the war hero in 2008 is McCain. But Obama has proved to be an extraordinary candidate in his own right.”

Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science, Emory University