Our Favorite Optimist…

…Dafydd ab Hugh, responds to our post “Reports of Kerry’s Demise Are Premature”:

Not to be too blunt but… I think you guys are nuts. (In a nice sense, of course.)
Let’s take a quick look at every president who lost reelection since Herbert Hoover and see if we can’t find a common thread.
1) 1932: Herbert Hoover, whose “approval” (there was no widespread polling at the time) was clearly in freefall following the crash, was up against the wildly popular Franklin Roosevelt, one of the greatest campaigners in US history — a fact clearly evidenced by the size of Roosevelt’s victory, 23 million to 16 million — 59% to 41%. The wide (and probably erroneous) perception was that FDR was far more competent to solve the economic crisis than Hoover.
2) 1976: Gerald R. Ford, who was never elected president or vice president, was seen by voters as a complete incompetent who “could not walk and chew gum at the same time.” He was wildly unpopular following his pardon of Richard Nixon; and in any event, the 1976 election was pretty clearly more a repudiation of Nixon than of Ford. Ford made horrible gaffes during the campaign, such as insisting that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union, all of which made it appear that he simply was not competent to be chief executive, a position he had inherited only two years earlier. He was a back-bencher who was selected for seemingly no other reason that that he was a back-bencher, hence not connectable to the Nixon machine in any way. 1976 was the only time in the twentieth century that an incumbent lost in a close election and is clearly anomalous.
3) 1980: Jimmy Carter was widely perceived by voters as a complete and utter incompetent, and he was up against another one of the greatest campaigners of all time, Ronald Reagan… a beloved figure with a popularity through the roof. At the time of the election, Carter’s approval rating was somewhere in the high thirties, depending on the poll. Carter lost 56% – 44%, which is pretty huge. (And note that the number who actually voted for Carter was several points higher than his job-approval number, a point to bear in mind.)
4) 1992: George H.W. Bush also had a job approval in the thirties (on most polls; I think Gallup had him at 41%) when he was slaughtered in a three-way; and he also was up against one of the greatest campaigners of all time, Bill Clinton. Clinton was ahead of Bush on every issue poll I can recall in 1992, and in addition, Bush was seen as disconnected and aloof, with no understanding of average people. He was patrician and stilted — say, just like John Kerry! — and widely disliked — say, just like Kerry! Even if we don’t count the Perot vote against Bush (though it is an indication of how disliked Bush sr. was in 1992), just looking at Clinton vs. Bush, the vote was 43% for Clinton to 38% for Bush, a 5% difference. But looking only at the universe of votes that counted — that is, votes for someone who actually had a chance of getting electoral-college votes — it was 54% to 46%, an 8% gap, which is very large.
That’s it; just four times since the 1929 stock market crash has an incumbent president run for reelection and lost… and in each and every case, the approval ratings of the incumbent were absolutely tanked, down in the thirties and highly negative, and also the challenger was seen as dynamic and exciting and was winning on all the important issues.
So now let’s review Bush jr. vs. Kerry in 2004.
1) Bush’s approvals are both positive and very close to — or in many cases above — the 50% mark. Of seventeen polls conducted in April (as shown on RCP’s polls page), Bush is at 50% or above on seven of them, and is at 47% and above on 15 of 17. He is net positive on 11 of 17, and has by and large done better in the latter half of April, during the Fallujah/Najaf dust-up, than the first half. Bush has been ahead of Kerry on every poll since Tax Day except for Zogby, where the two are essentially tied… while it’s true they’re within the margin, I suspect that a properly conducted regression analysis of all the polls combined would show Bush ahead by more than the margin in aggregate.
And looking state by state, at the moment, Bush is ahead in four states that he lost in 2000 (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and New Mexico) for an extra 43 electoral votes.
2) Kerry’s approval is below Bush’s, as is his likeability.
3) Suppose Iraq is still a problem; the question is, do voters think Kerry would do a better job there? And the answer so far is a very resounding no. How about on the war against terrorism? No. Job creation? Currently split, but likely another resounding no by the time the election is held.
4) Even you two are forced to admit the economy is improving strongly; you are pinning all your dire predictions upon some anticipated collapse in Iraq. But every time bad stuff happens in Iraq, and you predict a plunge in Bush’s numbers against Kerry, your prediction fails to materialize. Could it be that as concerned as Americans are about Iraq, they just don’t see John Kerry as the man on the white horse to come in and rescue the situation?
Relatively unpopular presidents, by contrast, have won reelection: Harry Truman in 1948, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1972, Bill Clinton in 1996. In each case, it was because of perceived flaws in the president’s opponents — both the opposing nominees (Dewey, Goldwater, McGovern, and Dole) and in Clinton’s case, the opposing party, which had launched a very unpopular impeachment despite Clinton’s own unpopularity prior to that attempt at removal.
5) John Kerry has a great many flaws as perceived by voters: they don’t believe he takes a stand and sticks to it, they don’t believe he is decisive or a leader, they don’t even like him very much.
You seem to be anticipating an unprecedented event in American electoral history: where an incumbent who is fairly popular with the voters is defeated by a small but determined cadre of people who hate him with an intensity bordering on psychosis. I suppose anything’s possible; but don’t you think it’s awfully unlikely that such a “coup of hatred” will succeed?

We certainly hope not. And, as I’ve said before, what gives me hope is John Kerry’s awfulness as a candidate. Still, he is leading Bush by three points in the current Rasmussen tracking poll. For a prediction (carefully hedged, however) that Kerry could win in a landslide, see Chuck Todd in the current Washington Monthly. Todd’s view of history is quite different from Dafydd’s, and less persuasive in my view. He sees President Bush as the new Jimmy Carter.
DEACON responds: When a president’s approval rating is at 48 percent (or whatever the current number is) it doesn’t take a “coup of hatred” to unseat him; it just takes a slight decline in that level of approval. Such a decline is likely if the state of the nation (for example, our situation in Iraq) becomes slightly worse. Inasmuch as Bush’s approval rating has declined significantly during the past year, I don’t think it’s nuts to worry that a bit more erosion may occur.
I think the common thread in cases where incumbents have been defeated is the perception that things were not going well at the time of the election. In three of the four cases, it was the economy that was perceived as not going well. In Carter’s case it was the economy and foreign affairs. A war that is perceived as failing should also give rise to the view that things aren’t going well, especially if the war is seen as a discretionary one. The last two presidents who presided over such wars — Johnson and Truman — didn’t run for re-election. If they had, they almost surely would have been defeated.

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