The fickleness of the electorate is due mainly to what I call its “squishy center“. The squishiness has often spread far beyond the center, to engulf huge chunks of the electorate.
The maps below illustrate this by contrasting electoral-vote outcomes for successive elections in which electoral-vote outcomes swung wildly. The maps are borrowed from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Leip uses red for Democrat, blue for Republican, and green for third-party candidates. The color for each State indicates the party affiliation of the candidate who won the State’s electoral votes. The shading (from darker to lighter) indicates the width of the candidate’s popular-vote victory in the State (from landslide to squeaker).
1. William Howard Taft (R) won convincingly in 1908 — taking most of the States outside the “solid (Democrat) South“, but went down in flames in 1912. That election was won by Woodrow Wilson (D), mainly because of the Progressive Party candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt. TR took won more States (those in green) than did WHT.
2. Wilson easily won re-election in 1916, but disillusionment set in and Warren G. Harding (R) coasted to victory in 1920, losing only the “solid South” (minus Tennessee).
3. Another eight years and another romp, this time by Herbert C. Hoover (R) in the election of 1928. Hoover took a chunk out of the “solid South” because his main opponent was Alfred Emmanuel Smith (D), a Catholic New Yorker. Hoover, in turn, was trounced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D) because of the onset of the Great Depression during Hoover’s term of office. (It is a widely ignored fact that FDR’s policies only prolonged the depression.)
4. Harry S Truman (D) won the 1948 election by a comfortable electoral-vote margin. It would have been more comfortable had not four States of the “solid South” succumbed to Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrat” (segregationist) allure. Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) turned the tables in 1952 by sweeping the electoral map outside of the “solid South” and even encroaching on it.
5. The election of 1964 pitted Barry M. Goldwater (R) against the incumbent-via-murder, Lyndon B. Johnson (D). LBJ’s incumbency and scare tactics were repaid by the electoral votes of all but Goldwater’s home State (Arizona) and some States of what was by then becoming the “solid (Republican) South”. You know the rest of the story: The rancor ignited by the Vietnam War and urban (black) riots led to a convincing defeat for Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democrat who ran when LBJ turned tail for Texas. The winner, Richard M. Nixon (R), would have won even more handily had it not been for the segregationist candidacy of George C. Wallace.
6. The electoral whipsaw effect intensified in the elections of 1972, 1976, and 1980. Nixon won the first of them in the most lopsided electoral-vote victory since FDR’s near-sweep in 1936. Dreams (or nightmares) of a Republican era were dashed by the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. In the aftermath, James E. (Jimmy) Carter (D) handily beat Gerald R. Ford (R). Carter’s victory was due in large part to Southern voters who temporarily returned to the Democrat fold because Carter (a Georgian) was perceived as “one of them”, even though he wasn’t (by a country mile). Carter’s ineptness as president was duly rewarded in 1980 when Ronald W. Reagan (R) came close to sweeping all of the States. (He came even closer in 1984, when he lost only Minnesota, the home state of his Democrat opponent, and D.C. — of course.)
7. The last of the wild swings (thus far) occurred in the elections of 1988 and 1992. George H.W. Bush (R) handily won the former election. He might well have won in 1992 but for the intervention of H. Ross Perot, whose third-party candidacy tipped the scales to William J. Clinton — in an eerie re-run of the election of 1912. Clinton, like Carter in 1976, was also helped by the perception that he was a Southern boy — thus his inroads into what by then had become the “solid (Republican) South”.
What will 2020 bring? I made a guess soon after the election of 2016.
All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.
The next presidential election is just on the other side of the hill. God save America from a reversal of the last one.