I am something of a fundamentalist — not religiously, but when it comes to presidential politics.
In presidential campaigns, fundamentals — incumbency, war and peace, the economy — matter most. While the fundamentals cost John Kerry the ’04 election, they bode well for the Democratic nominee in 2008.
As professor James Campbell wrote, “The fundamentals are the cards dealt to the candidates. … In general, the candidate dealt the stronger hand wins. … All … of these fundamentals favored President Bush in 2004.” But 2008 already looks much different.
Since 1948, seven candidates, including Bush, have been incumbents seeking a second term for their party. Only one lost.
But the odds are quite different when non-incumbents are trying to extend their parties’ control past two terms — the situation confronting Republicans in 2008. Since 1948, there have been five such instances and the in party has won only once.
Statistical analyses of these elections suggest that non-incumbents seeking to keep their parties in the White House beyond two terms suffer a five-point penalty at the ballot box. With an electorate this closely divided, five points can make all the difference.
The economy is another fundamental. In 2004, it was not bad enough to oust an incumbent. In the first half of 2004, real gross domestic product grew by 3.3 percent, putting it just below the middle of the pack for the 15 elections since 1948. In 1980, when Jimmy Carter became the only incumbent to be defeated for a second term since we’ve had such economic statistics, that number was negative 8.1 percent.
Economic forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, but the growth rates predicted for 2008 range between 2.0 percent and 3.3 percent. Thus, no one is forecasting an economy better than it was in ’04 and many predict it will be worse. In the instance when a non-incumbent trying for a third party term was victorious, the growth rate was well above those forecasts — 5.1 percent in 1988. Republicans can’t count on the economy to help them in ’08, and it is more likely to be a drag on their ticket.
War is another fundamental. Several recent columns dealt with this topic, and I will not belabor the analysis. Suffice it to say that majorities now believe the war was not worth the cost and that we are no longer making real progress.
In advocating his reelection, Bush could argue that we should not change horses in the midst of a war. In ’08, we will be changing horses no matter who is elected. Moreover, history suggests that drawn-out wars have a negative impact on the parties that undertook them; witness Adlai Stevenson during Korea and Hubert Humphrey in the midst of Vietnam.
Finally, there are the candidates. Of course, we do not yet know who they will be. We are certain though that the Republican nominee will not be as well-known as Bush or even Vice President Cheney.
Kerry suffered from an asymmetry of information. Each new impression constituted a huge percentage of what people knew about him. By contrast, every new piece of information about Bush was a relatively small share of voters’ storehouse of knowledge about the president. As a result, it was much easier for the Republicans to paint a negative portrait of Kerry than it was for Democrats to raise Bush’s unfavorables.
In 2008, the Democrat will not suffer from that asymmetry. Both candidates will have a roughly equivalent chance to define themselves and their opponent.
Sadly, I have not been endowed with the gift of prophecy. But the fundamentals suggest a great opportunity for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008 — whoever that might be.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.