Who Will Win in 2012?
Unlocking six secrets of predicting the race for president from a close reading of campaign history.
Editor's Note: We are refeaturing this Washington Matters column, originally published in October 2011, to put the changing dynamics of this year's presidential race in perspective. Is Mitt Romney suddenly "the cool guy"? President Barack Obama just a "steward"? The answers are critical to this year's outcome.
Horse race? Who needs the horse race? Here are six of the most enduring and uncannily accurate keys for forecasting presidential elections, born of my 35 years of covering national politics. See what you think, and check to see how they hold up as the 2012 campaign progresses.
SEE ALSO: GOP Battle Helps Obama
1. It’s tough to beat an incumbent president. Don’t believe President Obama when he claims he’s the underdog for reelection. If that were true, the Republican field would be a lot stronger. Since 1948, seven of 10 incumbent presidents have won reelection, 17 of 23 since 1792. Tea party partisans may pine for a bold outsider intent on busting up the Washington establishment. But as columnist David Brooks of the New York Times points out, most ordinary voters expect their commander in chief to simply provide basic order so they can be daring in their own lives. So voters tend to give the sitting president a huge benefit of the doubt.
There are two deal breakers: Presidents who are deemed woefully incompetent/out of their depth (Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter) or too focused on stewardship at the expense of leadership (Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush).
2. It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the perception of the economy when Election Day rolls around. The better Americans feel about its overall direction, the less eager they are to change presidents. The Economist notes that Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection in 1984, despite an unemployment rate at the same level that destroyed Jimmy Carter’s reelection effort four years earlier. But people felt the brutal recession of 1981-1982 was over, and it was “morning in America” again.
Conversely, an improving economy didn’t save President George H.W. Bush against Bill Clinton’s relentless focus on a recession that had ended well before the 1992 election. So never mind the economic vital signs, or that 49% say they won’t vote for Obama under any circumstances. Obama’s fate hinges on whether fewer Americans feel the country is headed in the wrong direction a year from now, not what they think now.
3. Deserving Republicans wait their turn. This is why Mitt Romney is considered the likely Republican nominee. He ran a vigorous campaign four years ago, sharpened his campaigning and organizational skills and now, well, it’s his turn. This has been unspoken protocol inside GOP ranks ever since Barry Goldwater’s disastrous insurgency in 1964 resulted in one of the worst general election drubbings in Republican history.
Waiting their turn is one way Republicans differentiate themselves from unruly Democrats. Not that Republicans don’t mix it up in the primaries. Though the tea party may seem like a new phenomenon, such tensions inside GOP ranks have existed for years. Ronald Reagan took his libertarian conservative insurgency against Gerald Ford all the way to the 1976 GOP convention. In the end, though, he made theatrical peace with Ford, adhering to his so-called 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” He waited until 1980 — and won the White House.
Similarly, his chief challenger that year, George H.W. Bush, waited until 1988. Veteran legislator Bob Dole won the 1996 GOP nomination with a message that virtually pleaded “It’s My Turn.” (It was his turn to lose to Clinton.) And John McCain had dibs on the 2008 nomination because he had fought a rival he privately disliked — George W. Bush — eight years earlier.
4. Tall guy wins. Since 1900, based on Wikipedia’s historical tally of candidate heights, 19 of 28 elections have been won by the taller candidate (68%). It could have been 20 of 28. Al Gore (6 feet) got more votes than George Bush (a half-inch shorter) in 2000, but the U.S. Supreme Court had the final say.
In 2012? Here the plot thickens: Obama is 6’1”. So is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. But Romney claims that he is 6’2.” There is no correlation between height and major party nomination winners, however.
5. Cool guy wins. Don’t laugh. This theorem, first postulated by my former editor Ciro Scotti at BusinessWeek, has an amazing track record. Think about it. Who was the cool guy, Dwight Eisenhower, iconic hero of World War II, or the bookish Adlai Stevenson? In 1960, John F. Kennedy (Camelot) or Richard Nixon (Tricky Dick)? In 1976, smiling Jimmy Carter seemed much more “with it” than Gerald Ford. Yet, four years later, Carter looked frustrated and hapless against bold, likable Ronald Reagan.
The winner doesn’t actually have to be cool, just come off as cooler than the other guy. George W. Bush benefited enormously in 2000 and 2004 by running against two Democrats who were exceptionally strong on policy but oddly wooden on the stump, Gore and Kerry. Clinton was the Elvis of presidential candidates. And Obama against John McCain in 2008? No contest.
The big question for 2012 is how much of Obama’s cool quotient has evaporated, and whether a candidate such as Romney or Perry can find his own vibe. Herman Cain is a cool guy now, but will he be for long? And yes, female candidates can be cool guys. Sarah Palin had it, then lost it, then had it and lost it again. Put this theory to the test next October: Who is the coolest candidate in the race?
6. Finally, a year is a lifetime in politics. In October 1967, Lyndon Johnson was considered a shoo-in to run for reelection. In the autumn of 1971, with college campuses in open revolt, Richard Nixon looked like he was toast as the Vietnam War dragged out. Fast-forward to 2003: two Democrats named Howard Dean and Wesley Clark (remember them?) battled for front-runner status in the Democratic race to unseat George W. Bush. In October 2007, most Democrats presumed Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the nominee. So don't be surprised if there’s a big surprise by next October.