Pick a Metaphor: 1980? 1960? 1928?

One of the reasons I keep AOL is because their homepage is a little like USAToday – if the editors at AOL decide to put something up front, it has a good chance at affecting the mainstream culture. (The other reason I keep it is because I am a computer Luddite and AOL remains ideally suited for people like me who have no idea how their computer works!) So, I took notice when yesterday’s homepage asked the question if 2008 would witness a landslide in the presidential race.

The dirty secret is: No one knows. But, I will venture a guess, actually three guesses at likely scenarios.


2008 will be a replay of 1980. The electorate knew it wanted an alternative to Carter but they were worried about Reagan. He had ventured some outrageous claims, suggesting that trees cause more air pollution than cars, and his old-fashioned commitment to seeing issues in terms of right and wrong seemed odd in a man who had spent most of his life in Hollywood, a place not known for its moral exactitude. The race was a virtual tie until the final week. The one and only debate showed Reagan to be perfectly comfortable and competent when sharing the stage with the President of the United States. People’s fears were calmed and all of the undecideds, then a full 10% of the electorate, broke for Reagan, giving him a landslide. If the reason Obama is running behind his fellow Democrats is because, like Reagan, people want to know more, want to see him perform under pressure, then a similar phenomenon could occur this year.

2008 will be a replay of 1960. John F. Kennedy’s advisors were convinced he should win handily against the artless Richard Nixon. The only thing that worried them was Kennedy’s religion. Before there was a term – the "Bradley syndrome" – to describe the phenomenon of polls under-reporting bigoted sentiments among the electorate, Kennedy’s advisors were familiar with the reality. They had pulled off a primary victory in heavily Protestant West Virginia with a lot of help from Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., prompting one wag to comment that in the Mountaineer State, voters as late as 1976 thought they were still voting for FDR. No one in West Virginia will make that mistake this time. Obama’s race, like Kennedy’s religion, may retard his numbers among otherwise stalwart Democrats. Kennedy won (maybe it is more accurate to say stole) the 1960 election but it was much closer than anticipated and his advisors were unanimous in their conviction that his Catholicism was the reason JFK did not do better.

2008 will be a replay of 1928. In August of that year, Charles Willis Thompson, writing in the pages of Commonweal, predicted "The only thing that can be said about a landslide is that if there is one this year it will not be for Hoover; the certainty that he will lose New York puts that out of the question." Smith had won election as governor of New York state four times and New York then controlled one fifth of the electoral votes needed for election. The following month, Thompson predicted that the "Solid South" that was the Democratic base would remain solid. In November, Al Smith lost New York and the suddenly unsolid South saw Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri shift to the GOP. The leaders of elite Catholic and liberal opinion simply did not see Hoover’s landslide coming. They could not believe that at this late date, anti-Catholic prejudice was so great. It is not difficult to see how Obama’s race could yield a similar result which would be bad news for the country and not just for Obama. If he loses, let it be by a small margin and on other issues.

Politics, like economics, like the weather, is often a non-predictable phenomenon, whatever AOL has on its homepage. The storyline about the unlikely landslide should help Obama at this point, first by making sure his supporters do not get cocky, and second by pointing out that bigotry in the past has been overcome. But, no one knows who will win in November and we may not know until late on election night.

Michael Sean Winters


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