We keep hearing from pundits covering the current Presidential campaign that this election is like no other. The past, they tell us, is no guide to the present.
As a professional historian, I beg to differ. The problem, I suspect, is that most journalists define history as the years that have elapsed since they began their careers. Anything prior to that doesn't count. However, if one is willing to look back over the country's entire existence, history does have important insights to offer about the election of 2004.
Taking that longer view, what strikes me above all is the likelihood that this is what political scientists and historians have come to call a critical election. By that I do not mean simply that it's important, but rather that it is a going to be truly transformative -- one of a series of elections that have taken place roughly once every three or four decades in our past.
A critical election is defined as one in which a major realignment of voters occurs. That happens when a sizable group within the population changes its partisan allegiance.
We saw that in 1968 when white southerners, who had been solidly attached to the Democratic party since the Civil War, moved on masse to the GOP in Presidential elections, giving the Republicans a new majority coalition which they have used to dominate American politics ever since.
A realignment can also take the form of a large block of new voters entering the electorate for the first time.
For example, back in 1932 ethnic immigrants began voting in far greater numbers than ever before. Prior to that time recent immigrants who had gone to the polls tended to shift back and forth between the two major parties, but in 1932, mobilized by the Great Depression, they declared themselves firmly as Democrats and helped to put Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.
Why do these changes come about? Typically during a critical election year the country is in the midst of a significant crisis -- perhaps a divisive war, or a major economic downturn. Partisan emotions rise to fever pitch. In effect, people come to believe that the country is at a crossroads, and that a basic decision must be taken as to its future direction.
In the heat of battle, new partisan allegiances are formed. The stunning fact is that, once they are formed, they tend to be incredibly durable. Those urban immigrant voters who went for Roosevelt in 1932 never really looked back, remaining loyal Democrats all of their lives.
This has to do with the nature of partisanship. Studies have found that it is not a matter of rational choice, but rather of visceral emotion. Partisan affiliation literally becomes part of a person's core identity.
The reason for that is simple. Once an allegiance gets established, it shapes the individual's perceptions of the world. Most Americans do not view public events as objective observers, but rather as Democrats or Republicans. They see things through the lens of their party.
A more precise way of putting that would be to say that they absorb the political culture of their respective party and then proceed to view the world in terms of its values and norms.
And so to the majority of Democrats today, George W. Bush is a moron, a fool, or a gross incompetent. To a typical Republican he appears as the strong, decisive leader we need in our present emergency. Partisanship is a very powerful perceptual filter.
And it is the existence of that filter that accounts for the continuity of partisan voting habits in one election after the next. Partisanship is by far the best predictor of voting behavior, bar none.
As for self-identified independent voters, they talk a good game, but when you look closely at their record you find that most of them in reality are consistent Democrats or Republicans. They just don't like to admit it.
What happens in a critical election is that things briefly become unhinged, and partisan loyalties of certain groups are up for grabs. Each party then attempts to win over those newly available groups in an effort to build a majority coalition that will ensure victory in the electoral college.
The stakes are high, because, if the past is any guide, we know that once a majority coalition is formed it will last for a long time, allowing that party to win seven of the next nine Presidential elections.
Obviously there is no rule written on the walls of the universe saying that this must be the case. History is always plastic and unpredictable in how it unfolds; nothing is ever set in stone.
Yet the fact remains that in American politics we have seen critical elections take place like clockwork every 36 years ever since the Civil War (before that they occurred in intervals of 28 and 32 years).
We have had critical elections in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1968. It doesn't take much calculating to realize that the next critical election in this sequence is likely to take place in 2004. That's what I have been telling my classes for a quarter century now, since the spring of 1981.
Judging from the intensity of the political emotion we have been witnessing this year, I see no reason to retract that forecast. I'm already placing bets on 2040.
What makes this timetable so regular? The answer is that the majority coalition that gets formed in a critical election year usually starts to fray as time goes on, and typically falls apart after three to four decades. And since we hold Presidential elections every four years, that means the change tends to come in year 36 of the cycle.
That happens because the social and cultural conditions that gave rise to the coalition inevitably change, causing the ideological message that held it together to become outdated.
By 1968, the Great Depression was over, and the economy was doing very nicely, as were the children of all those ethnic voters who had put FDR in office. The country faced a very different set of problems by that time, with the result that the majority coalition that FDR had cobbled together back in 1932 broke apart. Its reason for existence had effectively disappeared.
I repeat, there is no God-given reason why the cycle has to run 36 years. Nor is there any reason why the swallows have to come back to Capistrano the same week each year. They just do. It's a regularity of nature. In the same way, our election cycle has become a rock-solid historical regularity that has lasted for over two centuries to date.
One other key point. Throughout American history the minority party has always managed to win the White House for two terms in each cycle. For instance, in the Republican cycle that began in 1896, the Democrats managed to win twice with Woodrow Wilson. And in the Democratic cycle that began with FDR, Eisenhower was the two-term Republican who ran counter to the tide.
Here you might object that the Republican cycle that is now ending -- the one that began in 1968 with Richard Nixon -- has included three terms of Democratic rule -- one with Jimmy Carter and two with Bill Clinton.
The answer is that this cycle has indeed been different. History is plastic and open. Having a President exposed as a felon and ejected from office, as Nixon was thanks to Watergate, did momentarily disrupt things.
Moralistic southerners briefly returned to the Democrats in 1976 to vote for Jimmy Carter, who ran on a platform of effusive moral goodness. In this sense I would contend that Carter was an accidental President who in the normal course of things never would have been elected. Certainly, he conferred little long-term benefit on the Democratic party.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan restored the regularity of the cycle with his lopsided victory and cemented the Republican majority coalition that Nixon had first put together. In fact, that should have happened four years earlier. Had Nixon served out his full second term, it seems likely that Reagan would have been the Republican nominee in 1976 and gone on to victory that fall.
Watergate also prevented the Republicans from gaining control of Congress until 1994. We now know that approximately 40 southern Democrats in the House were planning to switch parties en masse in 1973. Other members of the House and Senate would surely have followed, leading to Republican domination of the Federal government in Nixon's second term.
But it never happened. If Democrats think the last 36 years of Republican ascendancy has been hard to take, they should keep in mind how much worse it would have been if Nixon had not messed up and the Republican tidal wave had been allowed to run its natural course. Watergate truly saved our lives.
All of which brings us to the current election. Critical election theory tells us we are probably at the end of the Nixon cycle. But does it tell us anything about what is likely to come next? To cut to the chase, who is going to win in November?
Here the theory tells us only one thing -- that critical elections are full of surprises. Their outcomes are especially hard to predict. Precisely because there is so much movement in the electorate, the sampling techniques used by public opinion polls tend to get thrown off kilter, making them much less reliable than normal.
What one can say with confidence, though, is that the party that wins this year will also win the next three or four Presidential elections. It will gain great momentum and solidify its coalition, while the losing party will be badly deflated and unable to pull its troops together again for some time to come.
Those Democrats who claim that it doesn't matter if Kerry loses because they can run Hilary Clinton in 2008 simply don't know their history. If Bush is re-elected, expect the Republican candidates, whoever they are, to prevail not only in 2008, but in 2012 and 2016, and possibly in 2020 as well.
But it also works the other way. If Kerry wins, his chances of being reelected will be extremely high, and the odds will strongly favor a follow-on Democratic victory in 2012 and 2016, whether the candidate is named Clinton or Edwards or Obama. Happy days will indeed be here again.
As for this year, the theory can provide some clues. For one thing, it's a fact that the party holding the White House has never won a critical election, going all the way back to 1800 when Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent John Adams.
It's true that in 1896 one Republican era followed another when William McKinley managed to assemble a new majority coalition to replace the one crafted by Abraham Lincoln in 1860. However, as it happens, the incumbent President that year was a Democrat, Grover Cleveland.
Thus if the challenger always wins a critical election, it would seem that Kerry has a real advantage this year.
But what about the impending realignment? What groups within the population appear to be in political transit this year, and what might that mean in November? Here one has to be cautious -- realignments always become clear in retrospect, but are often hard to discern while they are taking place.
Even so, one can spot three main areas where significant movement may be occurring. The first is younger suburban voters, who have been tending Democratic for several elections now and appear to be shifting suburbia from a Republican stronghold to either a split vote or even a Democratic advantage.
That is what has caused the old Nixon coalition to start breaking up over the last decade or so. At the height of the Nixon era, the Republicans could always count on winning California (which of course was Nixon and Reagan's home state), as well as three other industrialized states, Illinois, New Jersey, and Ohio. Put together, the four provided the Republicans with about 110 electoral votes, or roughly 40% of the amount needed to win.
New Jersey in fact proved to be the bellwether state of the Nixon era. The Democrats had owned it since 1932 thanks to a large population of ethnic voters, but in 1966 both houses of the state legislature went over to the Republicans. Two years later Nixon carried it in what at the time was considered a great surprise, and it did not vote for a Democratic Presidential candidate again for nearly a quarter century, or until 1992.
So perhaps it's worth taking note of the fact that in 2002 the Democrats gained control of both houses of the New Jersey state legislature for the first time since 1966. New Jersey is now considered a "blue" state and everyone currently expects to fall in the Democratic column this November along with California and Illinois.
The main reason for this change, as mentioned before, appears to lie in the fact that, as older suburbanites either die or move to the Sunbelt, the younger couples who are taking their place tend to be more liberal in their politics. We can see this in the way that Westchester County, along with Suffolk County on Long Island, have both elected Democratic county executives in recent years.
To a large extent, this explains why New Jersey, Illinois and California have switched sides, and why Ohio is now in play.
There is no guarantee that these younger suburban voters won't heed the siren song of the Republicans come November, but at the moment they look likely to stay Democratic.
As a result of this, the political map of the nation today almost certainly should have the East and West coast states painted Democratic blue, while both the South and the heartland are a deep shade of Republican red. That much seems clear.
However, two remaining areas are up for grabs. One is a band of states running along the southern rim including Florida and the desert southwest. Here everything will depend on Hispanic voters, a group just now entering the electorate in a big way.
Indeed, they were the ones primarily responsible for the outcome last time in Florida, which ended up so closely tied that it remains impossible to say who actually won. Florida had been a Republican bastion during the Nixon era with the sole exception of 1996, but in 2000 it almost joined the blue states. To my eye that was the most astonishing news of the 2000 election.
What caused the tie in Florida was a sizable influx of new Hispanic voters in the central part of the state -- more precisely in the corridor running from Orlando across to Tampa and St. Petersburg. Young and upwardly mobile, these Hispanics are mostly of Caribbean extraction, with an especially large percentage hailing from Puerto Rico.
What seems to motivate them more than anything is their dislike of the Cuban-Americans in South Florida who have dominated Hispanic politics in Florida for four decades. Since the Cubans almost invariably vote Republican, these young newcomers are registering and voting as Democrats.
Coupled with African-Americans and Jewish voters, these rising Hispanics could ensure that Florida belongs to the Democrats in the coming cycle. Similar groups of Hispanics could do the same in the Southwest, where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada are ripe for the plucking (the latest polls show Bush and Kerry just about even in all of them save for Arizona, where Bush has a moderate lead). If those states go Democratic along with Florida, it would produce a durable Democratic majority from now to 2040.
But the Hispanic vote is far from a sure thing. The fact remains that many Hispanics are deeply religious and culturally conservative. They do not favor abortion or gay rights. They also tend to be pro-military and to admire strong leadership.
For these reasons, the Republicans believe they have a reasonable chance of picking off a sizable number of these voters, despite the fact that economic self-interest ought to make most of them Democrats. 35% did vote for Bush in the last election, and his campaign is working hard to increase that share to 40 or even 45% in the hope of neutralizing Hispanics as a significant electoral force. In short, at the moment it's very hard to tell what will happen with this key constituency.
The third important group currently in play is not ethnic or socioeconomic, but geographic in character -- namely, the upper Midwest, a swath of territory running along the northern rim of the country from western Pennsylvania through Ohio to Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Democrats began the campaign assuming they would be in strong shape in those states, but they now find themselves struggling.
Ohio has long been a Republican bastion and was always regarded as a toss-up, but Wisconsin, Minnesota and to a lesser extent Iowa are highly progressive states that hardly seem like Bush territory at first blush. After all, Minnesota sent Paul Wellstone to the Senate, not to mention Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, yet polls show Kerry barely holding his own there. What is going on?
One can only speculate, but as a historian I would note that, while the upper Midwest has always had a progressive bent, it has also shared with the rest of its region a strong streak of isolationism. Perhaps that comes with being in the middle of the continent. Wisconsin did, after all, give us Joe McCarthy.
Why would that incline those states to George W. Bush? My answer would be that the militant unilateralism that has become the centerpiece of his foreign policy is in fact a modern day version of isolationism; they proceed from the same impulse.
Unilateralism calls for the United States to act on the outside world on its own and more or less at its will, regardless of what other nations think. Unilateralism, in effect, is the form isolationism takes when the nation comes under attack and has no choice but to engage the outside world by striking back.
If that's right, it may explain why the Republicans have a chance to add this area to their coalition this year. If they can accomplish that, and hold onto the Southwest and Florida, they will be in the driver's seat for the next generation.
Will that happen? By all the standard rules of American politics it should not. The reason has to do with the Republican's basic strategy. Though Karl Rove is a devoted student of critical election theory and very much aware of what is at stake this year, he has taken the immense gamble of shifting his candidate and campaign to the far right.
His thinking is that the key to a Bush victory will be to activate the four million Christian fundamentalist voters who did not go to the ballot box last time. Many of them live in battleground states such as Ohio and Florida. If he can get them to the polls in 2004, he is convinced, Bush will win easily.
But in taking this approach, the Republicans have vacated the political center, which, as Rove should know, is where most majority coalitions are formed. The Kerry campaign, sensing this opening, has employed one tactic after another to pull the center over into their camp, but with limited success so far.
That was the reason for the positive tone of the Democratic convention and the relative absence of sharp attacks on Bush. Focus groups had consistently told the Kerry team that the persuadable voters in the center -- who make up roughly 18 to 20% of the electorate -- are turned off by negative campaigning.
That now seems to have been a major tactical mistake. Kerry needs to pry those swing voters away from the temptation of swaying toward the Republicans, and to do that he has to demolish Bush as a viable alternative. Attacking Bush's performance as commander-in-chief has been long overdue for him.
But at the same time he assails unilateralism, Kerry needs to offer a clear alternative. More than anything else, he stands for a foreign policy based squarely on internationalism -- one in which we gain strength in the world by building up our network of friends and allies. A diplomat's son, Kerry believes in this to the very marrow of his bones, but so far he has not articulated it to the electorate. He desperately needs to do that.
Where, then, do things stand right now? The best indications are that Kerry and Bush are essentially tied, with Bush perhaps enjoying a small lead. The sizable bounce he received from his convention appears to have evaporated. The race remains very much open-ended, and in all likelihood will be decided by the forthcoming debates. Kerry does have a reputation as an excellent closer.
Anyone who thinks they already know how it is going to turn out simply does not understand the complex forces at work in this critical election year. A majority of Americans plainly seems to be disenchanted with Republican leadership, but there is not yet a majority willing to embrace the Democratic alternative. No firm decision has yet been made.
Again, the only safe prediction I would venture is that at some point over the next month voters will make that fateful decision about the country's future, one way or the other, and then stick to it for the next three decades. As they say, fasten your seatbelts.
"Understanding the 2004 Election: What History Can Tell Us," Dan Singal, professor of history
Sept. 24, 2004