Bohanon: A Simple Guide to Presidential Politics

April 27, 2015

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

The 2016 presidential race is anybody’s guess. Hillary Clinton is the Democratic front-runner as of now. There is no clear front-runner among the Republicans. In fact, no prospective Republican candidate polls more than 20 percent among GOP voters. Although my crystal ball is cloudy, I think a simple observation about the American electorate coupled with a bit of history give us some insight as to where the race may be going.

About one quarter of the American electorate can be described as Barry Goldwater conservatives and about the same proportion as George McGovern progressives. These voters are ideological, adamant in their viewpoint, often quite engaged in the political process and, barring an act of God, unwilling to change how they vote. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation.

The remaining half+ of the voting population splits between those voters who are truly independent middle-of-the-road voters — or wishy-washy wimps if you want to put a mean spin on it — and those who lean to the right and those who lean to the left. The left-leaners might be described as Clinton Democrats, while the right-leaners are Bush Republicans. Although members of both groups usually vote as expected, some leaners can be persuaded to vote for the other side, while the true independent middle-of-the-roaders are always up for grabs.

These are some indisputable facts: Goldwater and McGovern lost while Bush and Clinton won. Moreover, Goldwater and McGovern didn’t just lose; they were pounded. On the other hand, Bush I and Bush II won three out of four presidential elections while Bill Clinton won twice, although their wins were by no means landslides. This history seems to imply that only a centrist can win, although their margins are usually unimpressive.

But there are two significant outliers. In 1980, Ronald Reagan — a Goldwater conservative — beat Jimmy Carter by a comfortable margin in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, and trounced Walter Mondale in 1984 in both votes. In 2008, Barack Obama — more a McGovern progressive than a Clinton centrist — beat John McCain 53-46 in the popular vote and 365-163 in the Electoral College. He repeated the performance albeit with smaller margins in 2012 against Mitt Romney. What is common to Reagan and Obama’s first elections? Both were preceded by a major foreign-policy crisis — a humiliating Iran hostage crisis in 1980 and an unpopular war in Iraq in 2008 — and a less than robust economy.

So it seems to me that the cards will fall one of two ways. If there is no major foreign-policy crisis and the economy shows slow improvement in the next 12-15 months, it will be a Clinton-Bush race of “centrists.” Who wins depends upon whose “baggage” is worse and whether the McGovernites and Goldwaterites can be persuaded to support the middle-of-the-road nominees from their respective parties. On the other hand, if a major economic or foreign-policy crisis occurs or appears to be imminent, then there is a good chance we could see something like an Elizabeth Warren-Ben Carson race. The side that wins will be the one that has the most success in persuading the centrist voters that their opponent is a nut-job wacko. Stay tuned — this is going to be fun.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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