Another view from the Crystal Ball
By Larry J. Sabato
Director, UVa Center for Politics
June 24, 2004
Back on June 10, we issued an analysis that suggested just how similar the election of 1980--Carter v. Reagan v. Anderson--was to the election of 2004--Bush v. Kerry v. Nader. (http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/updates_04-06-10.htm) Remarkably, just in the last week or so, we have heard our words used, almost verbatim (and in the news business tradition, without attribution), by quite a number of news analysts and commentators. So be it, as imitation is the highest form of flattery!
But the contrarian in us is rebelling, now that our thinking has become the dreaded conventional wisdom, embraced by the noxious Beltway pundit class.
Is there another way of looking at the same two election years? Is the Pope Catholic? Here with a few differences, to balance the similarities to 1980 we offered earlier:
- Jimmy Carter would have given his right leg and left foot for the kind of sterling economy George W. Bush is presenting to the American public. A recession that likely began at the end of the Clinton administration, aggravated by the 9/11 attacks, has given way to a low-inflation, low-interest rates, job-creating, income-producing machine that is easily the equal of the one Bill Clinton claimed credit for in his reelection bid of 1996. By contrast, Carter had to defend an economic basket case of double-digit inflation, sky-high interest rates, and an ongoing recession. The American public's sour mood on the economy should begin to lift as the positive fiscal statistics continue to mount (assuming the news media gives even half the credit to Bush that they gave to Clinton under similar circumstances in 1996.) Advantage: Bush
- Iraq and our foreign policy generally are not current pluses for Bush, but there are genuine rays of sunlight. The June 30 handover appears to be going better than expected so far, the United Nations is joining the action once again, and our most critical allies are lightening up and even helping the United States. By contrast, Carter had an intractable mess in Iran, and little hope of resolving it before the election. Advantage: Bush
- President Bush's popularity has stabilized in the mid-to-upper 40s, after a dangerous period of flirting with the below-40 mark--which signals almost certain electoral doom. Bush is not yet in safe territory (above 50), but he is far from the 30s dungeon frequented by President Carter in 1980 and his own father in 1992. Advantage: Bush
- John Anderson of Illinois, the former Republican congressman, actually rated in the mid-20s in most public opinion polls in the spring and summer of 1980, before declining, as most third party presidential candidates do in the fall, and finishing at 7 percent on Election Day. By contrast, Ralph Nader, on average, is around 5 percent or 6 percent now, and we believe he is headed for a finish below his 2.7 percent in 2000. There is no question that Nader's relative weakness in 2004 aids John Kerry, yet the focus this year is more clearly on a straight choice of Bush or Kerry. A strong historical argument can be made that when a third-party candidate is on the rise and faring well, it signals intense dissatisfaction with the incumbent White House and the likely downfall of the incumbent president in November (Bull Moose Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992, Ralph Nader in 2000). As always, the twentieth century exception was the ultimate presidential comeback kid, Harry Truman in 1948, who survived strong third-party bids by Strom Thurmond on the right and Henry Wallace on the left. (See our discussion of Bush as Truman at http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/updates_04-05-20.htm) So, to conclude, the decline of a strong third-party alternative in 2004 could actually be read as a good sign for Bush. Advantage: Bush
- It almost goes without saying that John Kerry is no Ronald Reagan. Of course, George Bush isn't either. We have often called "W" the most inarticulate president of our lifetime. But one could argue that it takes the special skill of a Great Communicator like Reagan (or Bill Clinton in 1992) to oust an incumbent president, given all the inherent advantages that accrue to the occupant of the White House. While Kerry partisans will no doubt insist that their man is "good in small groups" and all the rest, his presence on the big stage is, well, lacking. His face appears to crack when he smiles, and the Democrat is often a cross between a funeral director and Lurch of The Addams Family. Advantage: Bush
There, we feel much better now. The Crystal Ball's role, at least on occasion, is to contradict conventional wisdom, not add weight to it. Also, we've now come down squarely on both sides of the fence, guaranteeing that we will be right (and wrong) come Nov. 2!