Rockefeller vs. Goldwater in 1964. McCarthy vs. LBJ in 1968. Muskie vs. McGovern in 1972. Reagan vs Ford in 1976. Kennedy vs Carter in 1980. Hart vs Mondale in 1984.
As history buffs would know each of the above Presidential primary contests was in varying degree long, expensive, emotive, distracting and a delight to the opposing party which invariably triumphed in November usually by a landslide.
Today Republicans watching the Clinton-Obama slugfest are weeping- tears of joy. In a year in which every indicator points to a Republican disaster of potentially monumental proportions, history offers hope to the GOP.
If we date the modern era from JFK’s assassination and the subsequent cultural –political “blow-up” that was the Sixties our Presidential elections offer some fairly clear and consistent lessons about who wins, who loses, and why.
The first- as described above- is that the party having a truly divisive primary season always loses. Secondly, beginning in 1964 the winning candidate is always from the Sun Belt: Texas (4), California (4), Arkansas (2) and Georgia (1). Third, the Democrats only win when they nominate a Southerner (LBJ, Carter, Clinton) because sons of Dixie “seem” centrist (i.e. not liberal) and electorally they break up the otherwise solid Republican South.
So, what does all of this tell us about 2008? Post Indiana/ North Carolina Barack Obama- short of sticking up a bank or being caught in a love tryst with Britney Spears-
joins John McCain as the “presumptive” nominee of his party.
What can we say about this match-up? First, it sure isn’t the one we expected as recently as last fall.
At that time John Mc Cain was broke, his staff unpaid, and even the “Straight Talk Express” had to be downsized to save on gas money. Rudy was topping the polls, Mitt had more money than anyone, and many thought the conservative base might swoon for Fred. McCain? So yesterday.
On the Democratic side the punditocracy had nothing to talk about but what color pantsuit Hillary would wear to her coronation. Her mastermind campaign manager Mark Penn was portraying Hillary as an “above the fray” centrist and saying all would be over by Super Tuesday (Feb. 5) at the latest.
Then in a single day in Iowa two men from nowhere- Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama- blew sky high both the conventional wisdom and the prospects of the frontrunners.
Huckabee ruined Romney’s “early state” strategy by splitting off evangelicals from the rest of the conservative base and opening the door for McCain to win lightning victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina over a divided opposition to his right which then exposed the winless Guiliani’s “late state” strategy for the monumental political gaffe that it was. Absent Huckabee, McCain simply had no credible path to the nomination.
In a similar act of divide and conquer Obama brilliantly exploited Hillary’s premature move to the center particularly on Iraq- the absolute hot button issue for the left wing Democratic base. In doing so he won the hearts and minds of Move On.org, the Daily Kos, and the liberal national media- all of whom decided that Obama was indeed “The One we have been waiting for”.
So, how does McCain vs. Obama stack up with our three-pronged test for victory in November?
Obama is the clear loser on all three counts:
A. It is his party that has had a divisive primary season for the ages, and the blood-letting isn’t over yet;
B. Obama is not from the Sun Belt while McCain- like the victors in the last eleven Presidential elections — is and
C. Obama is not a Southerner — unless you count the South Side of Chicago as Dixieland.
Other exogenous factors tend to support this analysis. In two critical states polls show McCain besting Obama in Ohio, and by double digits in Florida. More generically the slice of the electorate variously described as white, Catholic, blue collar, union, non-college [formerly called Reagan Democrats] has not warmed to Obama and will likely tilt
to McCain in significant numbers.
Politics is changeable, and precedents are made to be broken, but in a year that began with Republicans in a collective state of clinical depression recent developments have given the GOP at least a glimmer of “hope they can believe in”.