TWQ: The Campaign No One Will Forget - Spring 2009
April 1, 2009
It would seem to be impossible not to recognize the historical significance and symbolism that Barack Obama’s election represents, regardless of whether someone supported Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or any of the other thirteen contenders for the presidency. Just 45 years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech and Birmingham Public Service Commissioner Bull Connor directed fire hoses to be aimed at civil rights demonstrators, an African-American was elected president of the United States. No matter how Obama fares as president, this is a remarkable milestone in U.S. history.
This was always going to be an exceedingly difficult election for Republicans. Historically, parties have a difficult time winning the presidency for three elections in a row. The ‘‘time for a change’’ dynamic usually becomes too great to overcome. Since the end of World War II, one party has held the White House for eight years, two consecutive terms, only five times. Four times out of the five, they were not successful in holding onto the White House for a third consecutive term. The only time they did was after former president Ronald Reagan’s eight years in office. In the fall of 1988, he had an unprecedented job approval rating in the mid-50’s, and the time for a change dynamic was unusually low.
The situation confronting Republicans in 2008 stood in stark contrast with the one they faced 20 years ago. Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, uncontrolled government spending, record high deficits, and a series of scandals on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue had taken a significant toll on President George W. Bush’s approval ratings, which had dropped to the mid-twenties, 30 points lower than Reagan’s numbers at a comparable point. The Republican Party had paid a great price as well, dropping from parity with Democrats in terms of party affiliation, to a deficit of eight points. The significance of these two factors cannot be overstated. Given that roughly 90 percent of partisans usually vote for their party’s presidential nominee, a shift from parity to eight points behind is an enormous disadvantage. With a Republican nominee needing 50 percent of the popular vote and Bush’s approval rating at 25 percent, half of a GOP nominee’s support would need to come from voters who disapprove of the job that party’s president was doing. Notwithstanding any other factors, those two dynamics made this challenge distinctly uphill no matter who Republicans nominated.
These disadvantages were compounded by the fact that, while over the years McCain had developed a reputation for independence and an identity distinct from his party, at 72-years old, he was a candidate past his prime. McCain had been justifiably seen as an effective candidate in 2000, when he was edged out when the GOP nominated George W. Bush. Eight years later, he was less so. Watching McCain this year on the campaign trail was like seeing a Cy Young-award winning major league baseball pitcher struggling eight years past his peak performance level. McCain was not at the top of his game in 2008. His fast ball wasn’t as fast; his curve didn’t curve so much anymore.