Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Democrats' continuing quest for 50%

The Democrats have a problem, and it's a problem that they've had for over a century.

Absent major national trauma, they don't appeal to a majority of the voters. Never have. Possibly, never will.

We all hear the narrative in school: We have a two-party system, and those two parties compete for votes; Every few years, we have an election, and one of them gets a majority and gets to own the

White House for a while. Sometimes the Republicans get a majority, and sometimes the Democrats get a majority, with the occasional spoiler (Perot, Nader) pulling the winning candidate below 50%, but that's an abberation.


The fact is, Democrats rarely win majorities. Over the past 106 years, from the election of 1900 to the election of 2004, spanning 27 elections, only three Democrats were able to win more than half of the popular vote.

Those three were FDR (who did it four times), LBJ, and Jimmy Carter.

Three men, in 6 out of 27 elections.

In that same span of time, eleven Republicans, in thirteen elections, won at least 50% of the popular vote, with Eisenhower and Reagan doing it twice. McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Nixon, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. each did it once.

In the other eight elections, the winner won with less than 50% of the popular vote. Of those eight elections, Democrats won the presidency with a plurality in six of them. In 2000, Al Gore won a plurality of the popular vote but lost in the electoral college. The only Republican to win an election with a plurality-but-not-majority of the popular vote was Richard Nixon in 1968.

Democrats have consistently been unable to convert peace and prosperity into popularity. The only way for a Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote is with some sort of national trauma. FDR had the Great Depression and WWII. LBJ won the sympathy vote from JFK's assasination, and Jimmy Carter was elected because of public disgust with Watergate. When Bill Clinton was president through the peace and prosperity of the mid-90s, he got 49.2% of the popular vote in 1996. The economy boomed in the late 90s, the peace continued, and his vice president got 48.4% of the popular vote in 2000.

Richard Nixon was the first president ever to voluntarily resign when it became obvious that he was going to be impeached, convicted, and removed from office. Gerald Ford -- the only man ever to hold the Presidency without standing for an election first -- earned the wrath of a nation by giving Nixon a full presidential pardon. Jimmy Carter leveraged that wrath into 50.1% of the vote in 1976, but only managed to get 41% in 1980.

LBJ got a huge sympathy vote in 1964 (with 61.1%, the highest percent of the popular vote of any presidential candidate in the 20th century), but by 1968, was forced to make his famous declaration that, "if nominated, I will not run, and if elected, I will not serve".

If you define success for a politician as reliably getting a majority of the national popular vote, then the only successful Democratic politician since the beginning of the 20th century is FDR. He won a majority of the popular vote in all four elections in which he ran, and his vice president went on to be reelected after his death (though with only 49.6% of the popular vote).

In 1948, 'Dixiecrats' ran Strom Thurmond as their candidate, and he received about 2.6% of the vote. Truman received 49.6% of the vote, so it can be said that Democrats received a majority in that election -- but no single Democrat managed to.

The Democratic party has become used to two things: They are used to scratching out a win with less than 50% of the popular vote, and they are used to (unconciously?) exploiting national tragedies for political benefit. This latter fact is the reason that every scandal is Watergate, every factory closure is the Great Depression, and every organization is The Secret Cabal that Killed Kennedy.

What did FDR do that no other Democrat has done? Was he elected on his own merits, or was he elected because the Great Depression and WWII? Why did people re-elect him three times with a clear majority of the popular vote, when no other Democrat got re-elected with a majority even once in that 106-year span?

One possibility is the simple fact that he brought actual ideas to the table. From WPA to SSDI to AFDC, Roosevelt actually gave people something to vote for.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton brought ideas as well (remember HillaryCare? Gays openly in the military? Middle class tax cut? Cancelling China's MFN status? Assault weapons ban?), and those ideas either didn't pass or helped feed the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

Al Gore was big on environmentalism, and unsuccessful in 2000.

Ideas propelled the Republicans to success in 1994 -- the Contract with America was a briliant move that converted 460+ local races into one big national race.

In 2004, Kerry had no big ideas, and his little ones tended towards the absurd. The biggest issue of the election was the war in Iraq, and in his speech accepting the nomination as the Democrats' candidate, the only coherent ideas he had about Iraq were to (a) somehow get other countries to shoulder our burden there, (b) buy more weapons and body armor for the troops, and (c) not build so many firehouses there.

So, lately, the Democrats have no big ideas, and when they do have them, they get rejected by the public. They've limped along for a century now, riding the occasional national tragedy and Republican spoiler to victory. Only once in the past century have they managed to produce a candidate that a majority of the population actualy likes and wants to vote for.

So what to do? I don't know. Getting rid of the 60s relics who run the party might be a good start. Unbonding from powerful interests like government employees, union bosses, and trial lawyers might be another, though the short-term cost in money and influence might not be worth it.

Democrats are still coasting on FDR's legacy -- but the youngest person who ever voted for him (18 years old in 1944) is today 80 years old. The youngest person who has any memory of the JFK assassination (5 in 1963) is almost 50 years old.

I'm not offering specific policy suggestions for the Democrats here. I'm just pointing out a cold, hard fact: Absent national trauma, Democrats cannot win majorities in presidential elections.
Democrats have been in denial about this fact for a century, and will continue to be the also-ran
party that bounces from trauma to trauma until they realize this fact and start offering something to vote for.