This won’t be a normal presidential election year. The candidates will exhaust polarized voters, and the one who turns out the most will win. California will not be a factor because it is not one of the 17 battleground states.
So goes the conventional wisdom. “The number of voters who are truly undecided is minuscule,” writes Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "[Political] parity has turned into intense polarization,” says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. “Conservative states and House districts are becoming more Republican, while liberal states and districts are becoming more Democratic -- red states getting redder and blue states bluer,” according to Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.
But maybe the experts are all wrong, and this will be a blowout election that could go in either direction. The same pollsters who stress the “polarized nation” are finding that 10% to 15% of voters are swinging back and forth from candidate to candidate. Even if 45% of the electorate is unflinchingly for President Bush, and 45% equally adamant for Sen. John F. Kerry, that leaves 10% up for grabs. If one candidate gets them all, it would be a landslide.
Both Bush and Kerry have serious negatives that could shift undecided and currently uninterested voters to their opponent. Kerry’s negatives could lead him to the trap that snared several Northern liberals his party nominated: Sen. George S. McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984, who each lost 49 states; or the last candidate from Kerry’s Massachusetts, Michael S. Dukakis, who blew a 17-point lead against the first President Bush.
Then there is the lesson of Al Gore, who lost what should have been an easily winnable election. Democrats should be worried that Kerry has surrounded himself with veterans of these many Democratic defeats, such as his media consultant, Bob Shrum, who’s had a hand in most Democratic disasters of the last 30 years.
But Bush faces a more serious danger. The Iraq mess may not be Vietnam, but his version of World War I. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson was the hero of the world; the doughboys had won the war. A year later, the peace collapsed into Allied infighting, and Wilson’s popularity went down with it. In 1920, his Democratic Party suffered one of the worst defeats in the 20th century, as Americans voted for “normalcy” and Warren Harding.
An isolationist impulse still runs through the American electorate, especially among older and conservative voters in the heartland states. An Iraq quagmire could revive a “bring the boys home” isolationism, with Kerry looking at least as good in the electorate’s eyes as Harding once did.
There is also the division between red (Bush) and blue (Kerry) states that is said to determine the outcome of the election. Red states are not all getting redder nor all blue ones bluer, as Abramowitz claims. In Oklahoma, where Bush got 60% of the vote in 2000, a Democrat won the governorship in 2002. Most astoundingly, in 2002 a Democrat won the governorship of Vice President Dick Cheney’s home state of Wyoming, where the Bush-Cheney ticket got 68% of the vote in 2000.
There are a lot of “purple states” as well. One of the biggest GOP wins in 2002 came in Minnesota, an Al Gore state in 2000 that had been safely Democratic in presidential elections for a generation. Republicans not only beat former Vice President Mondale for a Senate seat but also picked up the governorship. The GOP also won governorships in the “liberal states” of Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont.
The competitiveness of the 2000 race in so many states besides Florida adds another element of uncertainty to this year’s presidential race. Bush carried supposedly safe Arizona with just 51% of the vote. Gore collectively carried Iowa and Oregon by only 11,000 votes, and both states had gone Democratic by wider margins three consecutive times before that.
The closeness of that race was largely an accident of the distribution of votes among the states, which produced a virtual tie in the electoral college. Although Gore outpolled Bush by half a million votes, they were not distributed in a way for Gore to win the electoral tally. In 1988, George H.W. Bush defeated Dukakis 53% to 46%, but the vote distribution resulted in an electoral vote landslide for Bush (426-112).
The lesson is that a relatively close popular vote does not always translate into a close electoral one. Even within a supposedly polarized electorate, an electoral-vote landslide is not out of the question, especially if undecided voters mostly break one way. And even the most partisan analyst will agree that this election, more than any since perhaps 1968, will be driven by events beyond the control of either candidate.
That brings us to California, which could be in play in an uncertain election, though a recent Los Angeles Times poll shows Bush losing support among Californians because of Iraq. The Bush-Dukakis race is revealing here. Bush lost the heavily Democratic San Francisco Bay Area, by almost 1 million votes, but he offset this loss with a million-vote win in the Southern California suburbs. He then compensated for his defeat in Democratic Los Angeles by compiling a slightly larger margin in the Central Valley and rural California. The favorable balance of votes in these four diverse parts of California allowed Bush to eke out a small overall victory.
This has been the pattern of Republican success in California dating from Richard M. Nixon’s narrow win over John F. Kennedy in 1960. The old electoral structure was assumed to be dead after the Bill Clinton and Gore landslides in the 1990s. But lost in the hoopla of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 triumph was the reality that the traditional political structure of California reasserted itself in the gubernatorial recall.
Schwarzenegger was swamped in the liberal and Democratic Bay Area, and lost central Los Angeles. But he ran up enormous margins in the Southern California suburbs and in the Central Valley. Most telling, though, he restored GOP margins in the older inner suburbs of Southern California, places like Long Beach and Ontario. When these areas go Republican, the GOP can win statewide, as Schwarzenegger proved.
This does not mean the 2003 vote translates into a 2004 victory of Bush over Kerry in California, but that the historical structure of a two-party California has resurfaced, sort of like the mystic Flying Dutchman sailing home after years at sea. Both Bush and Kerry should pay attention to the Long Beaches and Ontarios of the Southland. They should also remember that the last Northern liberal to carry California was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that the only Democrats to carry California since Roosevelt were Harry S. Truman of Missouri, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, Clinton of Arkansas and Gore of Tennessee.
Perhaps Bush should have paid more attention to California over the last four years, because no Yankee Democrat has carried this state since the scion of Hyde Park, and Kerry, if nothing else, is a Yankee Democrat. It’s true Bush would have to do awfully well elsewhere to have a chance here, but in a world where, as British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once famously said, events will determine the political outcome, no candidate should take anything -- even California -- for granted.