By November 2004, it will have been 16 years since any presidential candidate won an absolute majority of the vote. Between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the war on terrorism, a majority of American voters was unable to agree on a president. The country, that is to say, could not reach a political consensus.
That recent history helps put into context claims that beating Howard Dean would be easy work for George W. Bush next year. Bush would be likely to win that match–very likely, even. He is unlikely to equal the percentage of the vote Nixon won in 1972 or Reagan won in 1984. But by post-1988 standards, a 53-percent showing would be impressive enough.
The country seems to be more closely divided on the central questions that divide the parties than it was in 1972 or 1984. One of Bush’s top aides recently told one of my colleagues that if McGovern were running today, he would get 46 percent of the vote or more. But Bush’s advisers seem to realize that landslides aren’t all that valuable. (What did they get for Nixon or Reagan, besides a place on the statistical charts?) They do not necessarily mean that a candidate will have coattails. David Frum remarked yesterday that 2004 could be “a catastrophic defeat,” a “wipeout,” for the Democrats (italics his), and that it was “shaping up to look a lot like 1988.” In 1988, the Democrats lost the presidential race but won House and Senate seats.
Indeed, the goal of an electoral landslide and the goal of coattails can be in tactical conflict. A presidential candidate who’s cruising to reelection may decide to run up his electoral-vote total rather than helping his party. That was the bitter complaint of many Republicans in 1972 and 1984. If Bush finds himself sitting comfortably next year (which I don’t expect), he will campaign for House and Senate candidates. That may make a difference in two or three close races. Not much more than that is possible, especially in the House, where most seats are not competitive. A Dean candidacy is unlikely, in short, to result in substantial Democratic losses.
One supposed problem for Dean won’t be. Frum also noted that the governor does not run well among black voters. He does not seem to have much appeal at the moment, but I am sure that will change. Dean may very well have sewn up the nomination by the time blacks vote in large numbers. In the general election, labor and Democratic party ads will be portraying the Republicans as neo-segregationists. Under those circumstances, getting a large black turnout for Dean will be feasible.
All of the above said, I’m still confident that Bush will win, for the reasons I mentioned in this space yesterday. William Kristol argued yesterday that Republicans were being overconfident about Dean, and that they would not be able to correct that problem by merely saying that they are not overconfident. The truest claim in Kristol’s op-ed (which I criticized yesterday) was that underdogs can win. But it does not follow from that truth either 1) that one should pretend an underdog is not an underdog, or 2) that recognition of the underdog’s status as an underdog constitutes overconfidence.
Kristol’s claim, of course, applies to the Democratic primaries as well. The candidates other than Dean are underdogs, and they continue to have a chance to win. Underdogs can win, although that’s not the way to bet.