With Trends Like These . . .
No Republican has won the White House Without Ohio. So what?
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, July 27, 2004
BOSTON--Even though John Kerry has yet to break out of a dead heat in the polls, some Democrats are convinced he's going to beat President Bush in a landslide. Chuck Todd of The Hotline explains why: "Elections that feature a sitting president tend to be referendums on the incumbent," he writes in The Washington Monthly. "In recent elections, the incumbent has either won or lost by large electoral margins." Since Mr. Todd thinks a Bush landslide is out of the question--itself a premature assumption--a Kerry landslide is all but inevitable.
But there are other ways of interpreting the trend. In the five 20th-century elections when challengers beat incumbents, only one of the winners, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, had a landslide-level popular majority (57.4%). Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 both failed to surpass 51%, and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and Bill Clinton in 1992 managed just 41.8% and 43%, respectively.
Anyway, past elections are of limited value in predicting future ones. As in sports, streaks and slumps in politics go on only until they end. We keep hearing that Ohio is a crucial state for President Bush because no Republican has ever won the presidency without it. Yet while it's probably a good bet that Mr. Bush will either carry Ohio or lose the election, the recent past has seen plenty of similar streaks broken.
Mr. Bush was the first Republican since James Garfield in 1880 to win the White House without carrying California. That record would not have fallen had Al Gore received a few thousand more votes in Florida--but in that case, Mr. Gore would have become the first Democrat ever elected without carrying Missouri.
As it was, the Show-Me State became the most durable bellwether in America, having last backed a loser, Adlai Stevenson, in 1956. Missouri took that torch from Delaware, which voted for Thomas Dewey in 1948, then backed winners from 1952 through 1996 before falling to Mr. Gore in 2000.
In the process, George W. Bush became the first Republican to win the presidency without carrying Delaware since Benjamin Harrison in 1888. Mr. Bush was also the first president since Harrison to win election without a popular-vote plurality.
Perhaps it augurs well for John Kerry that neither Harrison nor the two earlier "minority" presidents, John Quincy Adams and Rutherford Hayes, won re-election (though Hayes didn't run). But in order to keep that streak going, Mr. Kerry would have to become the first president since Lincoln to win in November after being nominated at a convention in his home state.
He also would need to win the White House as a sitting member of Congress, something only three men have done: Rep. Garfield in 1880, Sen. Warren G. Harding in 1920 and Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960. And here's a streak that might give Mr. Kerry pause: All three died in office.
Then again, if Ronald Reagan could cheat death, maybe President Kerry can too. From 1840 to 1960, every president elected in a decade year died in office. But Reagan, elected in 1980, lived to be the oldest ex-president ever. Before him, the last decade president to survive his presidency was James Monroe, first elected in 1816 and re-elected in 1820.
Monroe had another achievement that Mr. Bush would like to duplicate: He was the last president to serve two full terms immediately following another two-term president. When Monroe won his second term, his Electoral College margin over John Quincy Adams was 231-1, the biggest victory since George Washington's unanimous re-election in 1792. Not even Chuck Todd expects such a lopsided outcome this year.
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