Editor’s note: Head of state, chief diplomat, commander-in-chief, guardian of the economy – Americans are fixing to elect another president, so we asked Notre Dame’s in-house pundit to put the moment, the issues, the candidates and the choices in context and perspective. Bob Schmuhl’s commentary on American politics and journalism frequently appears in major print and broadcast outlets in the U.S. and abroad. His exclusive commentary on the 2016 presidential election will run on magazine.nd.edu every two weeks.
While the seemingly unavoidable sound and fury of White House candidates provides daily, if not hourly, storylines for the media, larger historical forces also animate this year’s presidential campaign — and create their own drama.
It is, of course, impossible to use the past to predict the future, but electoral trends can often provide context for understanding the present. Even in an unconventional political time, a few guideposts might help orient voters to the terrain ahead during the next few months.
By almost any measure, 2016 should be a change election rather than one of continuity.
After Dwight Eisenhower served two terms as president, from 1953 to 1961, the Republican and Democratic parties have swapped the presidency with amazing regularity. The White House has bounced back and forth eight times since Harry Truman left the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan’s two terms and George H.W. Bush’s one encompassed a dozen years of Republican control (between 1981 and 1993), the longest stretch of one party’s dominance in over six decades.
Indeed, in the 16 elections during the period beginning with 1952, we’ve had eight change elections and eight for continuity. Come November that tie will be broken.
Interestingly, since the senior Bush lost to Bill Clinton in the change election of 1992, something of a presidential pattern has emerged. Three two-termers (Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) have occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — a Democrat, a Republican and a Democrat.
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The only other time we’ve had three successive two-term presidents occurred as the American republic began — between 1801 and 1825, with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. In that case, however, the trio represented the same political party over a full quarter-century.
The impulse for change derives from several sources, including the electoral urge to try someone from the other party in the White House. Another significant factor is the general mood of the public, especially how citizens perceive the state of the country.
If you consult every NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll or each of the CBS News/New York Times polls from Obama’s first months in office until today, you will not find a single occasion when a majority of respondents regarded America as heading in the right direction. Indeed, during this nearly eight-year funk, as few as 14 percent thought the country was going the right way — and as many as 78 percent at the same time, in October 2013, considered the United States headed on the wrong course.
Recent surveys in this category aren’t particularly rosy either. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey taken in late June counted 21 percent who think the country is headed in the right direction and 71 percent who say America is on the wrong track. Some 56 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released June 26 supported “a new direction” for the next president. Such numbers usually spell change for the party in charge of the White House.
Ever since 1976, the American electorate has shown a strong favoritism to political figures who identify themselves as Washington outsiders. Said another way, insiders are on the outs.
Former governors (Jimmy Carter and Reagan) and sitting governors (Clinton and the younger Bush) played up their experiences far away from the nation’s capital en route to the presidency. And, as a freshman senator from Illinois, Obama also emphasized personal distance from the Potomac River to argue he was a different kind of candidate for the White House.
At a time when experience in Washington is often considered akin to a contagious disease, perceived outsiders tend to benefit in head-to-head match-ups with perceived insiders. Recent “insiders” who lost presidential elections include the senior Bush in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, Al Gore in 2000 and John McCain in 2008.
Besides the strong attraction to outsiders, voters tend to prefer “new” White House candidates to those who have previously run for the presidency. Carter, Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama are examples of victorious first-time candidates.
Reagan and the senior Bush triumphed after running earlier in their political careers, but consider these recent nominees who were defeated in general elections after trying previously to win their party’s nomination: Dole, Gore, McCain and Mitt Romney. By and large, Americans prefer a fresh face to someone who’s been around the track without success in the past.
When you evaluate these trends, the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, holds a definite advantage over his expected Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Trump personifies a change in White House control; he’s an über-outsider, and — at least as a presidential candidate — he offers a new face to the electorate.
Unfortunately for the potential GOP standard-bearer, most voters view him unfavorably (a dozen June surveys yield an average 60.7 percent “unfavorable” rating), and he continues to contend with controversies that make members of his own party question their support.
Between now and Election Day, American voters will have a good chance to follow the currents rippling through our presidential politics — and also to watch how the candidates for the nation’s highest office navigate these tricky tides of history.
Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. This fall he will teach a class focusing on American political culture and the 2016 election.