Essay: We are in the midst of one of the most wide-open and unpredictable presidential races in modern US history. Based on my understanding of the American electorate, I believe that the media fundamentally and consistently misreads the electorate due to its inherently cosmopolitan bias. Before I delve into the candidates, here are what I believe to be the fundamental truths of the electorate (not all of which conform to my personal views, by the way…this is meant to be analysis, not advocacy):
– As a whole, the electorate is sensible and moderate. The people believe in “strong reciprocity”…that people should be treated equally and fairly. They favor policies that benefit the hard-working middle class and that reward well-earned success, but come down hard on those, whether rich or poor, that break the rules or are given special benefits. (i.e. they were happy to see corporate wrong-doers go to jail, they hate “corporate welfare”, they are tough on crime and they disapprove of welfare and affirmative action by wide margins.)
– On average, given the current definitions of “left” and “right”, the American electorate is left-of-center (“LoC”) on economic issues and right-of-center (“RoC”) on social and defense issues (in direct contrast to the media’s presumption that the country is right-of-center on economic issues and left-of-center on social issues).
– In presidential candidates personality matters a lot – the “more likeable” candidate (from the perspective of a political independent) almost always wins. Being comfortable in one’s own skin and an optimist is of primary importance.
– Even though the electorate is LoC on economic issues, it is fundamentally anti-tax. The American electorate rarely elects a candidate pledging to raise taxes in any form, and state ballot initiatives to raise taxes to pay for popular programs routinely get voted down, even in the bluest-of-blue states. If the federal government’s revenue as a percent of GDP exceeds 20%, (it is currently just above 18% of GDP) the electorate will almost always vote for a candidate that runs on a big tax cut.
– While the electorate pays lip service to deficit-reduction as a priority, when it comes time to vote, it is not.
– The electorate has rarely sustained enthusiasm for a conflict that not deemed to be in the national defense, and all wartime presidents have left office in disgrace, as one-termers or dead. History has generally rehabilitated those that left office alive, with the exceptions of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. That said, the electorate is fiercely nationalist and not internationalist in temperament, which makes it more rightist than leftist.
– The Iraq War is not a traditional right-left issue. There are rightist reasons against the war and leftist reason in favor. It was hardly a purely “conservative” decision to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iraq and engage in “nation-building” after the conflict.
– Given the current party structure, a Democrat from New England (and potentially NY and NJ) or a Republican from the Deep South states of MS, AL, GA, LA or SC would have a very steep hill to climb to get elected president.
– The electorate’s views are relatively stable. What changes are the timing of when certain issues rise in importance (i.e. just because the electorate will vote for a cut in taxes when taxes are high, doesn’t mean they are always looking for tax cuts) and the form of the coalitions built by the political parties (the shift on social issues with Republicans going after tradionally-Democratic blue collar workers and the Democrats making inroads with traditionally-Republican suburban voters).
– There is a long economic cycle (~70 years) that affects the general mood of the electorate. I won’t go into too much detail about that now, but it results in a shift from progressive politics (economic liberalism, increasing social liberalism) to cosmopolitan (increasing economic conservatism, social liberalism) to conservative (economic conservatism, increasing social conservatism) to populist (social conservatism, increasing economic liberalism). While the 2000 election was fought during the conservative phase, I would argue that that the 2002-2006 elections were fought on more populist themes, many of which were traditional right-wing populist themes.) The 2008 election will also be fought and won on populist themes.
– The American electorate rarely grants liberals or conservatives unfettered control of government for periods of more than 2 or maybe 4 years. It never grants unfettered control for more than 6 years, and those 6-year periods have occurred infrequently, but regularly, since the start of the current two-party system (1868-1974 (conservative), 1896-1902 (conservative), 1912-1918 (liberal), 1932-1938 (liberal), 1960-1966 (liberal), 1980-1986 (conservative), 2000-2006 (conservative)). It should be noted that from the Civil War to the 1980s, the Democratic Party contained both Southern conservatives and Northern liberals.
– Since the Civil War, with the exception of the period between 1932 and 1968, the Republican Party has had a natural and underestimated advantage in presidential races. This is a vestige of the Civil War, where the Republican Party was the Union Party and the Democrats were the opposition. Since that time, the Republicans have generally felt that they kept the flame of American tradition on defense, social issues and economics (although the definition of those traditions have changed over time), and the Democrats have usually been structured as an array of special interests that oppose the Republican agenda. (That is evident even now, where the Democratic platform, with the exception of health care, is mostly an anti-Bush platform.) The exception came in the 1930s when the Republican Party’s advantage collapsed during the FDR years of the Depression and World War II and the Democrats could more or less unite on economic issues. The Democratic coalition fell apart in the late 1960s when the pressure on social and defense issues overwhelmed the glue that held them together on economics.
– It should be noted that only two Democratic candidates since the Civil War have received 51% or more of the vote. Those are FDR in four elections and LBJ in one. Republican presidents have almost always won at least 51% of the vote in one of their elections.
– The Democrats can build winning coalitions on economic issues while downplaying social and defense issues. Democratic candidates from the South can win because they can eat into the Republicans advantage in that region. (LBJ, Carter and Clinton)
Ok, through that lens, here’s how I judge the electability of the candidates, based on positioning of canididates and personality:
– Clinton – LoC on social issues, Centrist (“C”) on economics & defense, weak personality
– Obama – LoC on all issues; strong personality
– Edwards – LoC on economics, C on social issues, historically C on defense, but now positioned as LoC; ok to strong personality (I would say ok, but as a Southerner he has an advantage)
– Richardson – C on all issues (I think); strong personality
– Biden – LoC on social and economic issues, C on defense; ok to strong personality (I like him, but he talks too much for his own good…like me)
– Dodd – LoC on all issues; strong personality
– Giuliani – RoC on economics and defense, LoC on social; ok to weak personality
– Romney – RoC on all issues (recently, at least); ok personality
– Thompson – RoC on all issues; strong personality if he can break out of his shell
– McCain – RoC on social and defense; C on economics; ok to strong personality (hindered by his age)
– Huckabee – RoC on social and defense, C on economics; strong personality
– Paul – Quirky…while he claims to be a libertarian, he strikes me more as an old-school right wing populist (an isolationist, anti-immigration, anti-trade, hard money advocate, anti-Washington, anti-elitist tradition in various strains from Andrew Jackson to Calvin Coolidge to Patrick Buchanan)
As I believe we are in a populist, and not a conservative era, the parties would benefit from nominating candidates that move both parties to the left on economic issues and the Democrats to right on social issues. A nationalist, but centrist, foreign policy would be the most appealing to the electorate as well. I therefore view the strongest general election candidates to be John Edwards on the Democratic side and Mike Huckabee on the Republican side. I would give a runner-up mentions to Bill Richardson (who I don’t believe can win the nomination at this point) and John McCain. In a general election, I would expect John Edwards to beat all Republicans with the possible exception of John McCain. I would expect Huckabee, McCain or Fred Thompson to beat Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Any other combination would be utterly unpredictable.
Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani are far weaker candidates for the general election than they appear; both are hindered by their personalities and positions on social issues. Giuliani’s economic plans are pure Republican orthodoxy and don’t offer innovative ideas for the middle-class (even Bush had the faith-based initiative and no-child-left-behind to soften the edges), and the same goes for Thompson and Romney. Giuliani is out-of-step with the electorate on economic and social issues, is a super-hawk on defense and can have an erratic and acerbic personality, which I don’t believe is a winning combination. I think Hillary Clinton may be a stronger candidate than Rudy Giuliani, in fact, with the tiebreaker going to her carefully-cultivated reputation as a centrist on economics and foreign policy, partially offset by his modest advantage in personality and heroic reputation.