Competition vs. Division


Bush Popularity Dive

Several recent national surveys have had President Bush slipping to his all-time job-approval low, such as the CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll released Sep. 22 that had Bush at just the 50 percent approval level. Is this unusual, a product of the lagging employment rate and the disaster in Iraq? The Crystal Ball tries to think more broadly than the day-to-day headlines, because the grand sweep of history is often cyclical. Please see our January 2003 e-mail, where we predicted Bush’s numbers would take a tumble. Why? Because every president since Lyndon Johnson has had the same trouble in the third year of his first (or only) term. In general, presidential promises catch up to the governing realities sometime in the third year. Some chief executives pull out of the tailspin (Nixon, Reagan, Clinton) and win reelection, while others do not and never get a second term (LBJ, Ford, Carter, Bush Sr.).

Democrats: Competition is fine, but divisiveness spells defeat

With a full complement of 10 candidates, Democrats are now ready to take to the track for the nomination sprint. Everyone knows that money, organization, and ideology help produce the nominee. And all readers of the Crystal Ball know the state of the economy, war and peace, and scandal are the key predictors of the November winner. But are there any other early clues to the making of the president? If a party has a fiercely competitive nomination contest, does that hurt its general election chances? How about if the nomination battle is not just competitive but also destructively divisive – resulting in lingering intra-party splits that are never fully healed prior to Election Day?

Take a glance at Table 1 for the answers. In modern, television-age elections (1960-2000), vigorous intra-party competition with a multitude of candidates did not hurt a party’s chances of capturing the White House in many cases. But divisive nomination politics that left open wounds or exposed a party’s unbridgeable fault lines did strongly suggest a disastrous November result.

Let’s look at the 11 modern presidential elections between 1960 and 2000. Nine times each, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party featured strongly competitive contests for their party nominations. Competition alone was no bar to victory, though, since Democratic nominees won three November elections after tough nominating seasons, and Republicans won four such elections. True enough, there were thus only seven total victories in these 18 cases, suggesting that all-out competition for the nomination may have some cost for a political party. But our point here is that significant competition alone does not always prevent triumph.

By contrast, competition that leads to major, obvious party division has always produced November defeat in both parties since 1960. Disunity (among other factors) cost the Democrats the White House in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988. The Republicans suffered the same fate in 1964, 1976, 1992, and 1996. (See Table 2)

Interestingly, in the two cases where Democrats and Republicans simultaneously had competitive but not divisive presidential battles – in the open-seat contests of 1960 and 2000 – the November results were photo-finish near-ties between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and Al Gore and George W. Bush.

So what does this mean for 2004? As of October 2003, it appears highly unlikely that President Bush will face any intra-party rival, thus eliminating both Republican competition and division as complicating factors for this reelection campaign. Meanwhile, Democrats are guaranteed a highly enlarged, exceptionally competitive contest for the party’s standard. It is also easy to imagine the Democratic battle becoming divisive, too. But the party’s contenders and activists are seemingly united in their hatred of President Bush, and perhaps that will be enough to stave off disaster in this critical test of a party’s chances in November. Democrats must hope so, while Republicans will naturally cheer the apparent advantage they currently enjoy in a significant historical indicator of impending victory.

California Recall

As this Crystal Ball analysis is being written, we are reading this morning’s bombshell published in the Los Angeles Times that reports some very unpleasant incidents involving Arnold Schwarzenegger. A number of women have accused Schwarzenegger of sexist and repulsive harassment and groping. Even the politically inexperienced Schwarzenegger should know better – this is not an acceptable way to “get a feel for the electorate.” Leaving aside the motives of those coming forward and the decision to publish just a few days before the election – all of which are somewhat suspect – it is clear that this article will have an impact on the election results. Our sense is that allegations inevitably will damage Schwarzenegger, but the degree to which they will hurt him is very much open to debate. Some moderate Republican women, for example, will be outraged and will not vote for Schwarzenegger. The same is probably true for some independent women. On the other hand, Republican partisans will be equally outraged at what they will consider to be a last-minute hit job against Schwarzenegger by a newspaper that has been strongly opposed to his candidacy. It is possible that as a result, some conservative Republicans who had been planning to vote for Tom McClintock, will switch to Schwarzenegger.

The Crystal Ball recalls the case of the drunk driving conviction against Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush which was revealed just a few days before the November 2000 election. As we argued in OVERTIME! The Election 2000 Thriller, that revelation – as unfair as it might have been, having occurred in the 1970s – did indeed subtract many votes from Bush, and was one critical reason why Bush lost his lead at the end and plunged the contest into “overtime.”

The Crystal Ball is at a great disadvantage here, because the article has just been published and it is impossible to gauge the reaction in California at this moment. However, we would guess that this episode will indeed slow Schwarzenegger’s momentum; it will cost him several percentage points, and if the election is very close, that could make the difference. At the same time, recent polls have suggested that Schwarzenegger is leading Cruz Bustamante by enough of a margin to take a hit like this and possibly survive.

Here is what the Crystal Ball had prepared to send out about the California recall race before the publication of the Los Angeles Times article on Schwarzenegger:

The Crystal Ball has not simply looked at the available public opinion polls, but it has also checked with over a dozen of the Golden State’s most prominent political observers, analysts, and reporters during the previous week. There is now a stunning consensus: Gray Davis’ days are numbered in the governor’s mansion, and Arnold Schwarzenegger will soon be better known by the appellation Governor than Terminator. We fully realize that conventional wisdom is often very wrong, but our California sources tell us with unanimity that the one comprehensive gubernatorial debate set things irrevocably in motion for Arnold. First, Californians who had been desirous of ditching Davis yet worried about installing a naïf like Arnold were reassured when Schwarzenegger held his own, interjected opinions freely, and even seemed to be enjoying himself in a pressured environment that was basically unscripted. Second, no one else distinguished himself or herself to the extent that another candidate was propelled forward by the debate. Tom McClintock strikes people as highly intelligent and philosophically committed – but way too far to the right tobe an acceptable and electable governor in today’s California. Cruz Bustamante was as uninspiring and as bland as any debater the Crystal Ball has ever gazed upon. Arianna Huffington is smart as a whip, but came across as shrill and obnoxious. Peter Camejo is the parallel leftist to McClintock’s right pole – fascinating but utterly unelectable.

Third, Gray Davis hovered over the debate like the ghost of Christmas past that he is quickly becoming. He was barely mentioned because, despite all of the glitter and the glamour of the Clintons and the Hollywood elite, he has not been able to escape his dismal performance as chief executive over five inglorious years. It was almost as though Davis’s regular term was coming to an end, and his would-be successors were gathered on stage for an on-schedule debate in September 2006. Finally, only one candidate, Schwarzenegger, had planned an effective post-debate media strategy. The endorsements of Arnold by 2002 GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon, Congressman Darrell Issa, and the state Republican party chairman built momentum and minimized the importance of the single greatest threat to Schwarzenegger’s victory: candidate McClintock. (Yes, Huffington has dropped out, and endorsed Davis, but her tiny percentage of the vote will certainly not do him much good.)

As the Democrats’ semi-official nominees, Davis and Bustamante have unarguable advantages in a heavily Democratic state. Maybe the break of the last-minute undecideds or election day turnout patterns will favor them and pull one or the other of them to victory. But increasingly, barring scandalous and shocking revelations in the last week of this historically strange campaign, California appears headed for another actor-administration. Should this prove true, you can be sure that Republicans will begin advocating for Sen. Orrin Hatch’s constitutional amendment to permit citizens not born in the United States to run for president. The Crystal Ball does not believe that amendment will pass, but if it does, the other main beneficiary besides Schwarzenegger will be Canadian-born Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. Schwarzenegger versus Granholm in 2012? You heard it here first – assuming that Arnold survives the inevitable recall attempt on his own governorship.

Note: This roller-coaster campaign could still change course in the final days. Should the Crystal Ball see such a shift, we will issue a special e-mail about it.