The Fickle Electorate

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.

1908

1912

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).

1916

1920

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.)

1928

1932

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.

1948

1952

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.

1964

1968

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.)

1972

1976

1980

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”.

1988

1992

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’.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

The next presidential election is just on the other side of the hill. God save America from a reversal of the last one.

The American Electorate’s “Squishy Center” vs. Liberty

I have invoked the electorate’s “squishy center” in several posts; for example:

If a left-wing Democrat (is there any other kind now?) returns to the White House and an aggressive left-wing majority controls Congress — both quite thinkable, given the fickleness of the electorate — freedom of speech, freedom of association, and property rights will become not-so-distant memories. “Affirmative action” will be enforced on an unprecedented scale of ferocity. The nation will become vulnerable to foreign enemies while billions of dollars are wasted on the hoax of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming and “social services” for the indolent. The economy, already buckling under the weight of statism, will teeter on the brink of collapse as the regulatory regime goes into high gear and entrepreneurship is all but extinguished by taxation and regulation.

All of that will be secured by courts dominated by left-wing judges — from here to eternity.

And most of the affluent white enablers dupes of the revolution will come to rue their actions. But they won’t be free to say so.

Thus will liberty — and prosperity — die in America. Unless … the vast, squishy center of the electorate takes heart from Trump’s efforts to restore prosperity (and a semblance of constitutional governance) and votes against a left-wing resurgence. The next big test of the squishy center’s mood will occur on November 6, 2018.

How big is the squishy center? I estimated here, based on popularity ratings for Obama and Trump, that about one-third of the electorate is hard left and about one-third is staunchly conservative; thus:

Figure 3
Derived from presidential approval ratings compiled by Rasmussen Reports for Obama and Trump. Current as of February 8, 2019.

I concluded on this note:

Left and right — the hard left and staunch conservatism, in particular — are irreconcilable. They are in fact locked in a death-struggle over the future of America. The squishy center is along for the ride, and will change its tune … and allegiance opportunistically, in the hope that it will end up on the “right side of history”.

As for the size of the squishy center: It may comprise about one-fifth of the electorate, rather than one-third, judging by electoral oscillations since the advent of the modern Republican Party around 1920. Hyper-active Teddy Roosevelt captured the party upon his ascendancy to the bully pulpit in 1901. Though TR’s presidency ended in 1909, the GOP remained in his thrall through 1916. TR’s “Bull Moose” (Progressive) candidacy in 1912 swung the election to Woodrow Wilson — the father of the administrative state. Charles Evans Hughes, the GOP nominee in 1916, was a TR man.

The GOP returned to “normalcy” in 1920, with the election of Warren G. Harding and his running mate-cum-successor, Calvin Coolidge. By “normalcy” I mean that Harding and subsequent GOP nominees have paid lip service, and sometimes actual service, to the project of limited, constitutional government. In any event, GOP presidential candidates, whatever their platforms and programs, have been consistently to the right of their Democrat opponents.

Given that, the division of the popular vote between the two major parties gives a first-order approximation of the ideological divide:

(I attribute the dampening of the fluctuations since 1984 to the generally uninspiring character of the post-Reagan candidates. Clinton’s weak surge in 1992 and 1996 reflects his GOP opponents — Bush I and Dole. Obama’s weaker surge in 2008 reflects McCain’s bumbling performance, and a temporary burst of enthusiasm among blacks and misguided whites who wanted to send a “message” to George W. Bush.)

A similar but more precise estimate of the ideological divide can be obtained by counting the votes cast for third parties. Drawing on Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, I assigned votes to two camps, which I call Federalist and Nationalist. Federalist for the idea of a confederation where States are co-sovereign with a limited, central government; Nationalist for the idea of a strong central government of almost unchecked power, ruling over subservient States.

On the Federalist side are the GOP; the Southern Democrats of 1948 and 1968; and the Libertarians of 2016. (I count the Southern Democrats as favoring the Federalist side because of their stance on States’ rights, however ignoble the cause it served. But their inclusion does not taint the GOP, as I explain here.)

On the Nationalist side are the Democrat Party; the Socialists of 1920 and 1932; the Progressives of 1924 and 1948; the Independent/Reform parties of 1980, 1992, and 1996; and the Greens of 2000.

There are other third parties, of less consequence, that could be labeled Federalist or Nationalist — the Libertarians before 2016 and the Greens of 2016, for example. But assigning them wouldn’t make a significant difference in the picture of the ideological split, which looks like this:

The Federalist surge in the 1920s is less impressive than the GOP surge of that decade, while the Nationalist surge in the 1990s is more impressive than the Democrat surge of that decade. But the bottom line remains the same: The electorate swings between 40-60 percent in the GOP/Federalist camp and 40-60 percent in the Democrat/Nationalist camp.

That is to say, there’s a hard core Republican/Federalist vote of 40 percent and a hard-core Democrat/Nationalist vote of 40 percent. The other 20 percent can’t make up its collective mind. But it’s the decisive 20 percent.

Democracy is the enemy of liberty.