Thursday, May 21, 2015

GOP | Shifting Strength, 1928-2012

May 21, 2015–The stakes of the 2016 election are made clear in a Real Clear Politics chart by Sean Trende and David Byler.

It shows changes in party strength based on Federal and state elections–weighting equally the presidency, Senate, House, state governors and state legislatures.

Will GOP Grow in 2016?

The RCP blogpost on Tuesday extends the chart to offer three different scenarios for the outcome of the 2016 Federal elections - win, lose and draw. Their conclusion is that the 2016 election is important.

Some broad principles emerge from the chart:
  • Voters tend to move away from the party of the presidency.
  • After 1936, the GOP steadily improved its electoral position, with a slight blip in 1944.
  • Only three incumbent Presidents widened their party's lead by much: FDR in 1936, Truman in 1948 and LBJ in 1964.
  • All were Democrats and they widened their lead by being decisive in a crisis.
  • When half-hearted policies don't work, it could be because they were inadequate.
  • Political fortunes can change quickly if perceptions are altered by events.
  • Voters were disappointed in six GOP presidents: Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, GHW Bush, GW Bush.
  • Reagan and Clinton (despite his impeachment) held their own after the first mid-term.
  • Voters are fickle, but they care about the economy.
Since I am writing about the financial crisis of 1929-33 and FDR's first Treasury Secretary, one of the three Republicans in FDR's first cabinet (the other two were Ickes and Wallace),  my focus is on the early years of the chart, especially what happened between 1928 - the first election year shown - and 1936.

The peak score of 50 in 1928 dropped down to -119 in 1936–a plunge of 169 index points. This is the largest shift in the electoral winds on the chart. Most of the time (60 percent of the time) the index varies between plus and minus 30 percent.


Why did that huge shift between 1928 to 1932 happen and what lessons does this shift offer for today? I am using as my guide Paul F. Boller, Jr.'s Presidential Campaigns (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Let's start at 1912, when Woodrow Wilson won the presidency because the Republicans were divided between Republican Taft and Bull Moose party leader Teddy Roosevelt. All three candidates were competing for progressive voters. Four years later, the country had shifted to the right and the race was about who could keep the country out of war (it took only till April 2 before Wilson had asked "the Gentlemen of Congress" to declare war). By 1920 the country had moved further to the right, fearful of the Russian Revolution and the League of Nations. Even though Wilson was not on the ballot, the vote was largely against him. The Republicans were confident of winning - and, sure enough, Warren Harding won 60.2 percent of the popular votes against James M Cox; 404 electoral votes to 127.

Harding died of a heart attack in office, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge took the reins. Coolidge ran in 1924 against a Democratic Party that was divided between Eastern voters who were "wet" and Western and Southern voters who were "dry". After a marathon of balloting, the two sides compromised on Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis to oppose Coolidge, who was a shoo-in with 54 percent of the votes.

In 1928, the first year of the RCP chart, Herbert Hoover campaigned on the theme of prosperity and efficiency, and Al Smith was tainted with being from Tammany New York and being Catholic and being a "wet". Hoover won with 58 percent of the vote and a 444-87 majority in the electoral college. However, it was clear that urban voters were growing fast, which meant that being "wet" might mean winning. (A cartoon of the period has Smith after the election calling the Vatican, with the one word comment: "Unpack.")

The Importance of 1929

The 1932 election reversed the 1928 numbers. The lopsided victory this time went to New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The country had lost its prosperity and Hoover lost the platform he had stood on four years before. The long-time Treasury Secretary, Andrew W. ("Andy") Mellon came under scrutiny and during the campaign the Democrats developed a capsule summary of the Hoover years:
Mellon pulled the whistle
Hoover rang the bell
Wall Street gave the signal
And the country went to hell.
Mellon resigned in early 1932 as Hoover was impeached. Hoover asked his end-of-term Treasury Secretary, Ogden Mills, to lend him a nickel to buy a soda for a friend, and Mills replied laconically: "Here's a dime. Treat all of them." What had happened, of course, was the Crash of 1929 and the  beginning of the Great Depression. To be fair, Hoover experimented with some public-works initiatives, but they didn't turn the economy around. A clueless Republican convention called for a balanced budget, requiring cuts or tax increases - as did the Democratic convention that followed. (FDR embraced the plan but wisely decided later to ignore it to bring down unemployment). The two leading candidates at the Democratic convention were FDR and former NY Governor Al Smith. FDR's staff spoke privately to the next-leading candidate, John Nance Garner, Speaker of the House, offering him the Vice Presidency in return for his support of FDR; he agreed. FDR was nominated and won with 57.4 per cent of the votes to Hoover's 39.7 percent, with the electoral college splitting 472-59.

Here is a larger version of the chart to help in reading the headings.

Changes in GOP Electoral Strength, 1928-2012, Chart by Sean Trende and David Byler, Real Clear Politics