TCS Daily

The Iron Laws that Bush Will Win - and Kerry Will Win

By James Pinkerton - November 1, 2004 12:00 AM

I've got five "iron laws" that guarantee George W. Bush to be a cinch to win the presidential election. But before you get too happy -- or sad, depending on your point of view -- I can also give you five equally solid reasons why John Kerry is destined to win.

It's human nature to root around for signs and omens about what the future holds. Some such auguries are nothing more than witchy superstitions or the wishful constructions of coincidence. And presidential elections, since they are a subset of human nature, are not immune to such hocus-pocus-izing.

For instance, some have argued that shorter hemlines portend well for the Democrats in national elections. This was true, for example, in 1960 and 1964, when the mini-skirt went higher and higher; donkeys won both of those presidential elections. One might spy a trace of correlation here; when social climate is loosening up, the loose party, the Democrats, gain, too. But who today, in a time of fashion factionalization -- when the trend-lines and hemlines go in all directions -- would dare declare a nationwide "look"?

Others have tried to divine presidential destiny in the kiddie vote. Weekly Reader asserts that its young audience has been correct in calling 11 of the last 12 elections. This year, Bush won this very youthful vote. By chance, I happened to be watching "Special Report" on Fox News when talking head Morton Kondracke tried to bring the Weekly Reader data point into the panel discussion. To his great credit, host Brit Hume cut Kondracke short; the hard-nosed Hume said he had rejected treating the Weekly Reader factoid as news. So the crestfallen Kondracke was forced to cite only electoral evidence concerning possible real voters. Moreover, a rival kid-poll, conducted by Nickelodeon, which claims 100 percent accuracy in the last four elections, found Kerry to be the winner.

Other forecasting "devices" are simply urban legends. It's often asserted that the taller candidate wins the White House. That one, too, has a certain logic to it, in the Alpha male sense; it would certainly bode well for Kerry, who's five inches taller than Bush. Yet the taller-man-wins "law" has frequently been broken; in the 1976 election, for example, Gerald Ford was taller than Jimmy Carter, and yet Ford still lost. Indeed, another report asserted that George McGovern was taller than Richard Nixon in '72, and yet McGovern lost badly. So what's the truth? Who cares? It's a bogus rule-of-thumb.

Meanwhile, one common source of alleged wisdom is easy enough to dispense with: public opinion polls. Yes, I know, millions of dollars, maybe billions, are being spent on surveys. The website does an excellent job of summarizing all available polls, but one draws conclusions from them at one's own risk. As Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz recalls, during the final week of the 2000 campaign, 39 of 43 national polls showed Bush leading Al Gore by an average of 3.5 points. And yet Bush lost the popular vote by half a percent.

Four years later, the pollsters claim they're more careful this year. And maybe they are. But these days, fewer people are willing to answer the phone for strangers of any kind, and pollsters don't even call the country's 169 million cell phones. Ah, but what of Internet polling? The answer can be summed up in two words: "spam" and "hackers." Choose one, or both. After the collapse of accurate polling and exit-polling in 2000, after the further cratering of polls in 2002, any faith in questionnaires must be counted as the triumph of hyped-up hope over experience.

But what about the pundits? Surely, seasoned, seen-it-all Washingtonians are able to distill all available information and synthesize it in sage vote projections. Well, actually, no. I remember, as clear as a cold splash of water on the face, the punditical wisdom about the 1986 midterm elections. On the weekend before Election Day, the then-mighty "McLaughlin Group" assembled to offer its take on the US Senate, specifically whether or not the Republicans, numbering 53, would hang on to their narrow majority. What was their anticipation? All the TV worthies prophesied that the GOP would hold their grip on the upper chamber, perhaps losing a seat or two. Instead, the GOP lost eight; the Democrats won back control. My faith in the power of punditry plummeted, never to recover, even after I joined the commentariat.

So what remains of forecasting? Here's a look at some additional prognosticating tools, all of which make some sense, at least on the surface. And in the spirit of fair and balanced, I offer five for Bush and five for Kerry. To be sure, a close reading will show that some of the Bush five and the Kerry five directly contradict each other, but we can't have everything, can we?

For Bush:

I. War presidents win. No commander-in-chief during a real war -- James Madison in 1812, Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, Richard Nixon in 1972 -- has ever been defeated in the November voting. Once again, there's a logic to this; in both '64 and '44, the incumbent war-chief won with the slogan, "Don't change horses in midstream." And Bush has called himself a "War President."

II. The politico-economic models support Bush. Yale University economist Ray C. Fair argues that rates of growth and inflation determine the White House winner. This modeling led Fair, a self-identified Kerry supporter, to assert in August that Bush would win 57.5 percent of the vote. And in fact, by those two economic measures, the economy is doing well; just on Friday, for instance, the government announced that GDP growth for the third quarter was a vigorous 3.7 percent.

III. The "smart money" is still on Bush. For those who put their faith in the free market, the positive odds for Bush's re-election, shown by the Iowa Electronic Market and the London bookies, should provide great comfort.

IV. Elected incumbents win re-election. In the 20th century, nine of 13 elected incumbents were successful in their re-election bids. This one, too, has a common-sensical underpinning to it. If the voters elect someone to be president, they have made something of an investment in him. So four years later, the argument to "give the president four more years to finish the job" cuts mustard with the voters. Indeed, it is further true that only once since 1896 has a party lost the White House after holding it for only four years; that was Jimmy Carter in 1980. By way of clarification, it should be noted that the other elected presidents defeated for re-election -- William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, George H.W. Bush in 1992 -- came to the White House having succeeded other presidents of their same party. Indeed, if one wanted to push the point, one could add that in the 150-year history of the GOP, no Republican has lost a presidential election after the party has held the White House for just a single term.

V. The Shrum Curse. About the time that Kerry was faltering in the polls earlier this year, critics noted that his chief campaign strategist, Bob Shrum, had been involved in seven presidential campaigns during his career, from John Lindsay in 1972 to Gore in 2000 -- and all seven campaigns had lost. The underlying argument is that Shrum is more effective at schmoozing candidates and their wives than he is at strategizing the national electorate. And so, for example, the Shrummed-up Kerry campaign was slow to respond to the Swift Boat Veterans attack ads last summer. Although in the last two months, the Kerryites have "layerered" Shrum underneath new advisers, it could still be the case that the damage done to Kerry is irreparable.

For Kerry:

I. War presidents lose. While it's true that Madison, Lincoln, FDR, and Nixon all won their war elections in November, it's also other war presidents have been vulnerable, losing their battles for re-election, starting with their re-nomination bids. Harry Truman, presiding over the Korean War in 1952, and Lyndon Johnson, overseeing the Vietnam War in 1968, were both humiliated in the New Hampshire primary and abandoned their re-election bids soon thereafter. To be sure, those were Democratic primaries, not general elections. Yet it's worth noting that these White House defenestrations were more recent than, say, the Madison re-elect. Bush has been campaigning for re-election as if the Iraq war is an asset to him. Maybe, Truman and LBJ would tell him, W. has got that wrong.

II. Minority-vote presidents lose. Four times in US history -- 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 -- the presidential candidate who won a minority of the popular vote nevertheless prevailed in the electoral college. The first three of those presidents -- John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison -- were all one-termers. Maybe they were so tainted by the "illegitimacy" of their victory that they never gained legitimacy in the eyes of voters. So what about Bush? Will he supersede this curse, or succumb to it? One additional bit of bad-for-Bush precedent comes from the Adams presidents. Both Adamses, father John and son John Quincy, were one-termers. Come to think of it, papa Bush was a one-termer. Is there an anti-nepotistic pattern here?

III. Consumer confidence controls. Since 1967, the Conference Board has published its monthly findings about consumer optimism or pessimism. As Bloomberg News reports, in the three subsequent elections in which the consumer confidence level was below the break-even point of 100, the incumbent lost the White House. In October 2004, consumer confidence fell for the third straight month, to 92.8.

IV. A down stock market is a downer for the incumbent. Across the 20th century, when the stock market declines during a president's term, he loses re-election. This rule has held true in almost cases, whether one measures the market from inauguration day, or from January 1 of the re-election year, or from the Labor Day immediately prior to Election Day. In Bush's case, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at 10,587 on January 20, 2001. It closed on Friday at 10,027. Parenthetically, one might also note that Bush is destined to be the first president to witness a decrease in overall employment in 72 years. Who was president 72 years ago? A fellow named Hoover. Bad omen.

V. The Red Sox victory proves that underdogs can win. As everyone knows, going into the '04 Series, the Bosox hadn't won a World Championship since 1918; a joyless October for Bostonians had become the baseball equivalent of an "iron law." Yet not only did the Red Sox win this year, but they beat St. Louis in a four-game romp. Moreover, in getting to the Series, the Sox overcame a minor-league "iron law"; in the history of the American League Championship Series, no team had lost the first three games of the best-of-seven series and come back to win the AL pennant. Yet the Bosox did that, too. In the face of such pro-Massachusetts precedent shattering, what Texan is safe?

Indeed, just on Sunday, sports provided another pro-Kerry indicator, however dubious it might be. As an editorial in The Washington Post put it on Sunday, "Ever since 1936, the year before the team moved to Washington, the last home game before the election has predicted the winner. If the Redskins win, so does the incumbent party in the White House; if not, not. This rule has held good for 17 straight elections." The Redskins lost to the Green Bay Packers.

So what'll it be? The pro-Bush rules? Or the pro-Kerry rules?

Nobody knows. And maybe, as Henry Ford said, "History is bunk" -- at least this kind of history.

Indeed, the presidential past is endlessly littered with verities that were suddenly unverified. The state of Maine, which traditionally voted in September, was long seen as an early indicator for the eventual electoral outcome, leading to the saying, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." But in 1936, Maine was just one of two states to vote for Republican Alf Landon when the rest of the country was voting for Democrat FDR; the new saying, wags insisted, should be, "As Maine goes -- so goes Vermont!" To take another string of certainty that was snipped, New Mexico was noticed to have gone with the winner in every election since its statehood. Yet that bellwether status came to an end in 1976, when the Land of Enchantment voted for Ford and the country voted for Carter. As the philosopher David Hume wrote, if one is observing swans, and the first 37 one sees are white, that still doesn't prove that the 38th swan won't be black.

A little less than a year ago, after the capture of Saddam Hussein, who thought Bush would be vulnerable? For that matter, in those Deaniac days, who thought that Kerry, not Dean, would be the nominee? Who thought that oil would be at $50 a barrel? Or that the economy wouldn't fall into recession for sure if oil got that high? Now, what will be the impact of the Osama bin Laden video? Or any other October -- or even November -- surprise?

"Nobody knows nothing." That was the bleakly ungrammatical maxim of the William Goldman, who won an Oscar for the screenplay for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Goldman, of course, knew a lot about Hollywood. But on the ultimate Tinseltown question -- "Will this movie be a hit?" -- he never knew the answer. And over the long term, nobody else does, either, about which flicks click, and which pols prevail.

In a way, this ultimate ignorance is reassuring. If all the experts -- pollsters, economists, pundits, historians, maybe a writer or two -- could figure out the Right Answer, that would be the end of freedom, because there'd be no need for the tools we presently use to arrive at the Good Enough Answer, namely, the free market and free elections.

And besides, there's no need to try to cipher the '04 election, because we'll all know the winner tomorrow, on Election Day. Oh wait -- maybe it will be Election Month. Still, considering the Orwellian alternative, some answers are worth waiting for.


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