2016 Democrats, 2016 General Election, 2016 Republicans

Would Goldwater Have Defeated McGovern?

August 17, 2015

For the past few decades, Democrats have tried to avoid nominating another George McGovern.  Republicans have attempted to avoid the Barry Goldwater specter.  This is with good reason, as each candidate was arguably their party’s biggest electoral failure of the past 100 years or so.

How do we know it was the candidates and not mostly collateral factors?  Running against Goldwater in 1964, LBJ won over 60% of the popular vote and 44 states (plus DC).  In 1972, McGovern lost 43 of those 44 states and over 60% of voters chose his opponent.

It’s often said that 40% of the country will definitely support the Democrat, 40% will support the Republican and the 20% in the middle choose the president.  In this case, the entire 20%, plus a few of the supposedly locked in 40% groups swung in the space of two elections.

Not enough proof?  After all, between 1964 and 1972, Vietnam went to shit, cities erupted in flames, MLK and RFK were assassinated, students took over their universities, and the world as people knew it in the early 60s ceased to exist.

In 1960, Richard Nixon and JFK essentially tied.  While the 2000 election, with hanging chads, retracted concessions and Supreme Court decisions was more dramatic, the 1960 candidates were separated by a total of 20,000 votes nationwide, the second closest margin in American history (1880 was even closer).

Between Election Day 1960 and Election Day 1968, most of the above mentioned events already happened.  Nixon was back on the ballot.  Again, the election was a virtual tie, with Nixon’s winning margin under 1%.  Nixon fought two very close elections.  In between, Goldwater got obliterated.

Flash forward to 1972.  Nixon, with a positive approval rating, but still very controversial with much of the electorate, runs for re-election.  Before the Democrats chose a candidate, most observers expected a close election.  Nixon’s team certainly did, as many of the stunts his team would regret after exposure in the Watergate hearings were not designed to make sure Nixon won 500 Electoral Votes.

They were attempting to run against McGovern though, and it worked like a charm, as he won the type of landslide enjoyed by FDR and Ronald Reagan, two presidents rarely mentioned in the same breath as Nixon.

When the comparatively conservative Southerner Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976, the point was reinforced.  Prior to Barack Obama’s win in 2008, the lesson to Democrats was that any northern liberal (Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry) was unsafe, never mind as extreme a candidate as McGovern.

Obama, who had the most liberal voting record of any Senator during his tenure, took advantage of stellar campaign architecture, a historic candidacy, great discontent with the incumbent Republican and a more centrist-sounding campaign to win.

So yes, it’s possible to elect (and re-elect) a liberal Democrat, but even Obama’s harshest critics would not argue he sounded like, or even governed like McGovern (would have).  Similarly, some have argued Reagan was Goldwater in sheep’s clothing, but few would claim he could have won without the sheepskin, or won easy re-election without having compromised with a Democratic House.

1980 Reagan v. 2008 Obama is a neat mental exercise.  Depending on what time period you would teleport them to and what conditions in the country were, you could make some interesting arguments about who would win.

We don’t have a potential Reagan-Obama matchup for 2016, but there’s a non-trivial chance of Goldwater-McGovern, or more specifically Ted Cruz v. Bernie Sanders.

Could this really happen?  Yes.  A strict look at the laws of probability, would say no, or more accurately the odds are a rounding error.  Tilting the scales in Bernie’s favor, it’s hard to come up with more than a 1 in 10 chance of his nomination (Hillary ain’t indicted yet).  Giving Cruz more than a 1 in 10 shot with several strong candidates and Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina clogging his lane is likely pushing it.

So, doing standard math, the odds of both candidates advancing is 1 in 100 (1/10 x 1/10).  If you think each candidate has a 5% chance instead of 10%, the odds worsen to 1 in 400.  Not going to put you thorough this scenario for something with a 0.25-1.0% chance of occurring.

The laws of probability are based on one action not affecting another.  If you flip a coin 10 times and it comes up tails each time, the odds of tails on the 11th flip are 1 in 2.  There’s no such thing as positive or negative momentum on a coin flip (assuming the coin is evenly weighted).  However, for 2016, the success of Sanders will likely affect Cruz, and vice versa.

Here’s how:

In 1964, there were plenty of liberal and moderate Republicans.  There were two issues with Goldwater, ideology and electability.  While many Republicans were worried about the down-ballot effects of a Goldwater Ticket (fears that were proven reasonable), plenty objected to him based on not agreeing with his positions.

LBJ was not running as a moderate in 1964.  This was pre-Vietnam escalation, Great Society Lyndon, halfway between passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (primarily with Republican votes) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Goldwater was anathema to a significant percentage of previously loyal Republican voters.  The best example is in the state of Vermont.  We think of 2015 Vermont, the land of Bernie, Birkenstocks and Ben & Jerry’s.  A place that drives Subarus and elects Socialists.

From 1856 (the first year Republicans ran in a national election) to 1960, Republicans won Vermont each time.  When FDR won a historic landslide in 1936, beating Alf Landon in his home (heavily Republican) state of Kansas, he still lost Vermont.  Not only did the GOP always win Vermont, it was usually by huge margins, often grabbing 65-75% of the vote.

On average, Republicans ran 30 points ahead of their national vote, so in a year where they won nationally by 10 points (55 to 45), they would win VT by 40 (70 to 30).  But, these weren’t conservative Republicans.

Given the choice of Goldwater or LBJ, Vermonters picked LBJ.  They’d picked Hoover over FDR in the depths of the Great Depression.  Not only did they go all the way with LBJ, but it was by a margin 10 points ahead of Johnson’s national vote.  Goldwater lost Vermont by more than 30 points.

If nominated, Cruz would be the most conservative Republican nominee since Goldwater, but he would not be out of step with the Republican primary electorate.

Voters do have reasons to prefer other candidates.  Marco Rubio is milder, more acceptable to a General Election audience, more likely to work constructively with Congress, more comfortable speaking Spanish.

Scott Walker has executive experience and a track record of getting conservative results on the state level.  Neither are more ideologically acceptable to the median GOP voter.  There isn’t a ton of space between either and Cruz, and where it exists, the average Republican is more likely to agree with Ted.

The issue is perceived electability.  For many Republican voters, the difference between Cruz and Rubio isn’t worth the chance of President Hillary.  For some, it is worth it, but many of them are at least temporarily in Camp Carson or on the Trump Train.  This is why perhaps the most ideologically acceptable Republican is at 10% in the polls.

For any of you clucking about those extremist Republicans, you can stop now.  Guess what, Bernie is just as in synch with Ms. Average Democrat.

McGovern wasn’t.  Reagan Democrats, many of whom were also part of Nixon’s Silent Majority, are now either nominally or officially Republicans or dead.  Though they abandoned McGovern en masse in 1972, residents of the Old Confederacy were still part of any winning Democratic coalition, providing Carter’s winning margin 4 years later.

As late as 1984, these states were only nominally more Republican than the rest of the country.  That’s right, Reagan only ran slightly ahead of his national margin against WALTER MONDALE in the South.

Bill Clinton won southern states in 1992 and 1996, including his home state of Arkansas.  However, by 2012, Mitt Romney finished approximately 20 points ahead of his national average in southern and border states won by Clinton.  Outside of university towns, there is no such thing as a Caucasian Southern Democrat, at least in presidential elections.

The absence of liberal/moderate Republicans and conservative/moderate Democrats creates an environment where the two parties are much more ideologically homogeneous.  Fifty years ago, both Democrats and Republicans understood they belonged to intellectually inconsistent parties that existed for the purpose of winning elections.

In those days, many local and state government positions were filled by recipients of patronage largesse, not members of powerful unions taking advantage of collective bargaining.  As long as you didn’t nominate someone ideologically abhorrent, the faithful would turn out.

Not only were positions more “flexible,” but there was no Internet, or even readily available satellite TV feeds, so candidates could say one thing in Georgia and another in Oregon.  Not only was there no video proof, but it was accepted practice.

There are now a number of states very unlikely to elect a senator from the minority party in their state.  The vast majority of House districts heavily favor one side or the other.  It’s probably a stretch to say even 100 out of 435 seats are anywhere near up for grabs.

So most registered Republicans are conservative, live in suburbs, counties and states that are conservative and have their favored candidate win most or all state and local elections.

If you ask if George W. Bush went wrong by being to conservative or moderate, they will likely say his mistakes included TARP, excessive deficit spending, Medicare expansion, increased Federal involvement in education, comprehensive immigration reform attempt without securing the border, and not pushing harder against Iran and Syria.

Basically, your regular GOP voter wishes W had channelled his inner Ted Cruz.

Similarly, the median Democrat questions the Bill Clinton decision to eliminate Glass-Steagall, thinks Dodd-Frank didn’t go far enough and can’t understand why Obama hasn’t closed Guantanamo, raised the Federal Minimum Wage to $10+, prosecuted the Wall Streeters involved in the Great Recession, raised taxes on the 1%, controlled the cost of college, or done anything to make 22-year-old inner city African-American males more likely to have a good job than a legal record.

Through her ties to the Clinton and Obama administrations and the fat cats who funded and benefited from them, Hillary’s record is dangerously out of step with the core (not just the furthest left) of her party.  She can move her words leftward, but Sanders has remained where the Party is now for his entire career.

When he became mayor of Burlington, VT, Bernie was in step with one of the most liberal parts of Vermont (think Berkeley with better access to maple syrup).  By the time he won election to the House, a good chunk of the state caught up to him.  By the time he became Senator Sanders, the state responsible for Governor Howard Dean, didn’t find him dangerously leftist.

Now, the average Democrat has the approximate views of a Vermonter.  So why would Democrats choose Hillary?  In some cases, loyalty to a popular figure in the party, in others, more moderate voters would prefer her record and presumed ideology, but those two groups don’t make enough of a majority.  She only has a majority if a percentage of voters think she is more electable and close enough on the positions.

While Rubio, Walker and Jeb Bush count on voters worrying about a Clinton-Cruz matchup, Hillary needs a percentage of Democrats to fear Sanders-Rubio.  Barring a major scandal after the convention, Republicans win that one semi-easily at worst.

But what if it looks like the GOP will pick Cruz?  Especially in a world where Hillary is further bruised by EmailServerGate, and Joe Biden wasn’t willing to ride to the rescue, or fell off the horse while trying to.  Democrats believe a majority of Americans would agree with them if only their leaders didn’t sell out and give in to conservative demagoguery.

Those same Super Delegates who would sooner pick Martin O’Malley (heard him on one of the Sunday shows yesterday–had the approximate charisma of a cardboard box) than Bernie, might feel very differently if they could make their base happy and possibly win anyway.  If Sanders wins a plurality of primary votes and party insiders bail on Bernie for a mortally wounded Hillary, previous loser, or also-ran, they risk revolt, or at least a bunch of voters and volunteers staying home.  Eventually, they gave in on McGovern too.

Right now, Republican insiders are planning on running against Hillary and hoping/assuming that primary voters will eventually quit screwing around with Trump and pick Jeb, Marco, Scott, or John Kasich.  Even putative outsider Carly Fiorina has pitched her candidacy as the ideal Hillary opponent.  This assumes a few things:

  1. Trump proves not conservative/serious enough.
  2. A decent percentage of voters prioritize beating Hillary.
  3. The establishment part of the field clears quickly, so votes at most are split a couple ways.

If Trump retains even 15-18% of the GOP vote, he’s not just taking very conservative voters, he’s also grabbing less-ideological pro-outsider votes, people who may have supported McCain and Romney and lived to regret it.

If it’s early April and Kasich, Bush, Rubio and Walker have all done poorly enough to have collected relatively few delegates, but well enough to think the other guy should drop out, all of a sudden Cruz looks like a good compromise candidate.  Unlike Trump, he does not have huge negatives inside the party.  Unlike Dr. Carson, he has practice takings political incoming fire.  Rush Limbaugh, Fox News AND the National Review would accept him as a nominee.

Many elected officials would want to object; Ted hasn’t proved a good playmate, but virtually all parts of the GOP intellectual base would sign off in a second.

Much as Democratic partisans could not imagine mainstream Americans voting for Cruz, Republicans can’t imagine Sanders winning.  The GOP is nowhere near as invested in any single candidate as Dems are in Hillary, so it’s an even easier sale.

A weakened Hillary increases the odds of Bernie.  A chance of Bernie increases the chances of Cruz.  A semi-likely Cruz may cinch things for Sanders.  Think of it as political centrifugal force.

While each may only have 5-10% odds right now, you can argue there’s a good chance if one is tabbed, the other will join him.  If Trump stays up and Hillary continues to fall, while Biden stays out, odds of this scenario only increase.

So how would a Cruz-Sanders race look?  Is it similar to a mythical Goldwater-McGovern matchup?

There is one important difference.  Not as many states are up for grabs.  From 1968-1988 there was a supposed Republican Electoral College advantage.  The idea was some states always voted GOP, practically enough to win by themselves, while many of the remaining often voted Republican.  This was a known and understood truth, sort of like gravity, until the electorate apparently got launched into orbit in 1992.

From 1992-2012, the reverse was true.  Democrats always won enough states to get very close and often won plenty of others.  Did the country suddenly shift blue?

Not exactly.  To begin with, Democrats lost a 40-year House majority in 1994, and have spent most of the last two decades in the minority.  However, the country fractured, with fewer states up for grabs in a presidential election, even a landslide.

Ignore for a moment which candidate or party won a given state in a particular election.  Instead, concentrate on the margin between parties in that state compared to the country as a whole.  Ohio  and Florida are often considered swing states, because each party has won them in the past three elections (twice each in the past four), and the winning candidate has won both for the past several elections.

Sounds like a couple swing states right?  Wrong.  Both lean Republican; Florida all but once since 1960, Ohio all but three times since 1924.  A strong Democrat can win them, a weak Republican can lose them, but neither are likely to make the crucial difference (even in 2000, a couple people vote differently in Oregon and Iowa and nobody cares about Broward County).

Virginia is a current example of a true swing state.  It favored John McCain by 1 point over his national average in 2008 and Obama by less than a point in 2012.  Nobody noticed, as Obama won both times.  While the state has trended increasingly blue for the past couple decades, it’s impossible to tell where the end of the trend is.

Another example is Iowa, which has favored Democrats 4 times over the past 6 elections and Republicans twice, with each of the six falling within two points of the national result.  While Florida and Ohio will almost definitely go Republican in a close race, Iowa and Virginia could go either way.

Pennsylvania is the Democrats’ Ohio.  They’ve won it 6 times in a row, while Republicans have only won Ohio twice in the same stretch, so it appears different.  However, the margin over the national number ranged between +1 and +5, with one of the +1s coming in 2012.  It’s clearly a Democratic state, having favored Democrats in each election since 1952.

Run a good GOP candidate, or Democrats a bad one, and it’s in play, same as when Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush won the Keystone State.  In many of those elections, the pro-Dem margin was larger than in recent years.

Leaning state, swing state, whatever you want to call them, there were 14 states within 10 points of the national margin in 2012.  This means had either Obama or Romney won nationally by 10 points, they would have swept these.

Alphabetically, they were:

Colorado (D +1)

Florida (R +3)

Iowa (D +2)

Michigan (D +6)

Minnesota (D +4)

Nevada (D +3)

New Hampshire (D +2)

New Mexico (D +6)

North Carolina (R +6)

Ohio (R +1)

Oregon (D +8)

Pennsylvania (D +1)

Virginia (D +0)

Wisconsin (D +3)

This is the Democrats’ advantage.  A Republican needs to win several of these states to win the election.  George W. Bush won 8 of the 14 at least once during his two narrow victories.  As of the last election, 11 of 14 lean Democrat.  Romney won 1 of 14 in 2012, McCain zero in 2008.  The GOP has lost ground since 2000.  If the distribution were to stay the same, a Republican candidate might need to win the election by 2.0-2.5% in order to win enough electoral votes.

This is historically unprecedented.  On both occasions after 1824 when the popular vote winner lost, the margin was approximately 0.5%.  Republican voters are unusually inefficiently distributed.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 49 states with a popular vote margin a little under 19%.  His one narrow miss (ignoring DC) was Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, where the margin was very slim.

In 2012, 22 states (plus DC) had a margin of 19 points or more outside the national average.  Seven are deep blue, fifteen dark red.  If President Obama won the election by almost 20 points, he would have won 35 states instead of Reagan’s 49.  There are no historical examples of a candidate losing by as few as 10 points and winning as many as 15 states.

The lack of leaning states is the cause.  In 1984, 28 states were within 10 points of the national average, double the 2012 number.  Current conditions are the outlier; in 1960, 33 states were within 10 points, 1976, 31 in play.

It’s safe to assume in a Cruz-Bernie contest, the majority of the 36 clearly red or blue states from 2012 (plus DC) would tilt even further than they normally would.  Cruz in particular would win many states by 35-50 points.  Given the current imbalance, you could argue he might need to win the popular vote by closer to 4-5% to get to 270.

That is Bernie’s main advantage, one that did not exist for McGovern and would not have even if matched against Goldwater.  In Ted’s favor, the country as a whole still leans somewhat to the right.  Even if you remove the 22 states (plus DC) with relatively extreme positions, all things being equal, the country leans slightly rightward.  There are plenty of Republican governors, senators and representatives in those states, and the GOP holds a majority of state legislatures.

Unlike 1964 or 1972 when partisans gave up due to fundamentally disagreeing with their candidate’s ideology, due to thinking there was no chance of victory, or due to down-ballot candidates realizing a majority of voters would prefer the opposing presidential candidate, each side has a reason to dig in if both are running more extreme candidates.

It might be a surprisingly clean campaign.  When relatively little separates the candidates on issues, personal attacks become more important.  This is why primary elections are often uglier than general elections, and many hit pieces in the fall come from friendly fire in the spring.  Sanders would not personally attack Cruz (though DNC-favoring PACs might), and Cruz would likely focus on reminding Americans they aren’t socialists at heart (or mind).

Romney won 206 EVs in 2012.  I’m going to take the liberty of assuming no state that passed on Obama is picking Bernie.  So Cruz needs to find another 64.

Florida plus Ohio, both Republican leaning, are very likely, especially with Kasich or Rubio a semi-likely Veep choice.  That’s another 47, 17 to go.  Jim Webb Democrats put Cruz ahead in Virginia for another 13, leaving him 4 short at 266.

The people of Colorado would probably stop watching broadcast TV, switching entirely to Netflix, Hulu and on-demand.  Think Cruz would win, as Republicans a little more moderate than Ted have won regularly statewide, while Dems a little more moderate than Bernie usually lose.  So Cruz probably wins the contest.  However, it might or might not be real close.  The big winner would be the ad salespeople at the network stations and cable companies

Interestingly, there’s a national consensus on what’s wrong, just not what to do about it.   The reason is the consensus is from the outside-in, not center-out.  Fifty or sixty years ago, a larger center pushed through legislation and programs that voters at the margins didn’t agree with.  Bipartisanship is much easier if much if of the country is in the middle and is more united than your own party.

While people bemoan the partisanship in current-day DC, national politicians are less rigid than the people electing them, leading to the discontent.  They’re often splitting the difference, favoring big donors, corporations and banks along the way.  Neither the traditional Hourly Worker Democrat or Main Street Republican would have signed off, let alone their modern successors.

Though their prescriptions completely opposite, Cruz and Sanders don’t differ tremendously on identifying the diseased areas.

Just because a state leans one way or the other, doesn’t mean it always will.  Often, the nomination and/or election of a more extreme candidate can cause states and voting groups to re-evaluate.

The majority of the reddest states were once blue and the vast majority of the blue states were once red, not for an election or two, but for decades.  The success or failure of one or both of these extreme (by historical standards) candidates, would significantly scramble the chess board for each party for the next couple decades.

While a mostly intact Hillary, Jeb, or Kasich is more “electable,” a more dangerous option would probably make a bigger long-term difference, winning on a clear ideological platform and having a real mandate.

The question is, are Democrats and/or Republicans feeling lucky?

NOTE #1: If Bernie and Ted were to set off on an electoral adventure, the odds of a Howard Schultz or Michael Bloomberg Independent run go up exponentially.  Don’t want to hazard a guess on which side that would impact more.  You can make good arguments either way.

NOTE #2: If you were reading semi-closely, you’ll see I think Rubio is the best strategic choice for Republicans.  80% of Cruz’ upside, 8% of his downside.  He’s possibly the single most likely nominee.  There’s also at least a 70-80% chance it’s not him.  There’s some definite Chaos Theory at work this time, way too many variables.  Plus, he’s still unproven as a national candidate.  For every JFK in 1960, Clinton circa 1992 or Obama 2008, there’s Biden 1988.

The winners were tremendously organized.  Biden wasn’t.  Even without the plagiarism and double aneurysms, he wasn’t ready.  My gut says Rubio is way ahead of him, but does not have the team JFK, Clinton, or Obama had.  Not only were they the best campaigns of the last 60-70 years that didn’t involve Karl Rove or Jim Baker (perhaps even including them), there was no MegaField to spread all the operatives out.

Marco’s no dummy and has thought this through, but Cruz probably started planning in college.

NOTE #3: I think Goldwater would have definitely defeated McGovern in 1972.  In 1964, it’s very tricky, most of McGovern’s unpopular positions didn’t exist yet.  He managed to get elected in 1962 in South Dakota, which was already leaning pretty far to the right.  That version beats Goldwater easily.

If they face off in 1968 and George Wallace stays out, it looks a lot like Cruz-Sanders would in 2016, probable edge to Goldwater, but lots of uncertainty.

NOTE #4: Though I speculated Cruz might pick a mainstream, competitive state running mate like Kasich or Rubio, it would be interesting to see he and Bernie double-down on their Veep pick.  Cruz-Fiorina or Cruz-Carson and Sanders-Warren would be very compelling.

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2 thoughts on “Would Goldwater Have Defeated McGovern?

  1. Sounds more and more likely that Hillary is going to have legal and campaign trouble with her emails. Even liberals like Eugene Robinson are disgusted and using terms like “Nixonian.” So, Mr Analytical Guy, who will be the nominee if she’s unsuccessful?

    Like

  2. Assuming he jumps in sooner than later, Biden is by far the most likely Hillary replacement.

    Gore and Kerry are not credible alternatives, they’ve already proven they’re bad general election candidates.

    Gore and Kerry are also wealthier than the Clintons, and if you dig into how Gore made some of his money, it starts looking very insidery.

    The amazing thing is if he was just a couple years younger, Jerry Brown would probably be the best option.

    Like

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