As the 2008 electoral calendar moves inexorably from primary season to the climactic partisan battle of the fall, both parties prefer to ignore the painful reality of a narrowly divided electorate and to consider their candidates in the light of false nostalgia.
Democrats view Barack Obama as a youthful savior in the mode of John F. Kennedy or the Bill Clinton of 16 years ago — a handsome political magician who will electrify the country and sweep to overwhelming victory.
Republicans look at John McCain and sigh, worried that he can't measure up to the idolized Reagan — who came riding out of the West with a rock-solid record, united all conservatives, and instantly established a durable right-wing majority.
Such "recollections" amount to a sad example of political veterans rhapsodizing over their youthful adventures while embellishing, or misremembering, the truth about the past.
The 43-year-old Kennedy fell far short of soaring victory in 1960 — beating the charismatically challenged Richard Nixon by the narrowest of margins (49.7% of the popular vote to 49.5%). Clinton also failed to win a majority of his fellow citizens, not once but twice: Thanks to Ross Perot's third-party ego trips, he won the White House with only 43% of the vote in 1992 and 49.2% in 1996.
As for Reagan, he similarly benefited from a third-party candidacy (by the now-forgotten John Anderson) and won his famous landslide victory over the deeply unpopular Jimmy Carter with only 51% of the vote (the same percentage earned by the controversial George W. Bush in 2004). Moreover, Reagan bore far more resemblance to McCain than today's purist conservatives want to acknowledge: as one of the oldest newly elected presidents (only two years younger than McCain's would-be inauguration age of 72) and a pragmatist whose gubernatorial record in California (signing a bill to legalize abortion, raising taxes to cover deficits) offended right-wing ideologues.
An enduring deadlock
The fact that even political heroes such as Reagan, Kennedy and Clinton failed to win resounding majorities shouldn't undermine their reputations as supremely gifted campaigners. Yet even these vote-getting superstars couldn't shatter the deadlock that has afflicted presidential politics for nearly a half-century.Going all the way back to Kennedy's race in 1960, eight of the 12 presidential contests have yielded a winner who won less than 51% of the popular vote. The only exceptions, in which a candidate assembled a substantial majority, involved three popular incumbents (Lyndon Johnson in '64, Nixon in '72 and Reagan in '84) running for re-election against feeble opponents, and one sitting vice president (George H.W. Bush) who ran as the candidate for "Reagan's third term" and managed to gather 54%.
All other presidential victories produced either minority presidents (Kennedy in '60, Nixon in '68, Clinton in both his races, Bush in 2000) or barely cleared the bar of 50% (Carter in '76, Reagan in '80, Bush in 2004).
These results should stand as definitive rebuttal to cherished myths that continue to bedevil both conservatives and liberals. For decades, right-leaning activists have cherished the notion of a "silent majority," a long-suffering mass of quiet but committed traditionalists who wait only for a "true conservative" Prince Charming to awaken the sleeping giant with a kiss. Some true believers maintain stubborn faith in this much-loved legend of a right-wing consensus ready for arousal by a leader whose voice speaks forcefully enough — a phantom majority that never instantly materialized for Reagan himself let alone Reagan-wannabes such as Pat Buchanan or Mitt Romney.
On the left, ideologues and activists nurture a mirror-image faith in the "idealism" and "radicalism" of the American people, if only the right messianic figure managed to mobilize our long-buried lust for change. This notion of a blocked and sublimated passion for "systemic change" helps explain the huge emotional investment in the three Kennedy brothers to whom their followers imputed near superhuman powers: Despite the fact that Jack was actually a moderate-to-conservative president, Bobby was facing an uphill battle for the Democratic nomination when he was assassinated in '68; Teddy, in his one bid for the White House in 1980, mobilized almost no one and made scant progress even against the hapless Carter. The "movement for change" of Democratic dreams failed to materialize not because of personal deficiencies in any Kennedy or Clinton (or McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis or Gore), but because liberal ideology has never attracted anything near a majority of the populace.
These failures and frustrations on both sides suggest that we most likely will witness another breathlessly close race in 2008 — especially with no sitting president or vice president in the race and scant prospect of a major third-party spoiler. Regardless of Democratic enchantment with Obama, history indicates that even the most electrifying and barrier-busting campaigners will still hover around 50% of the popular vote of a durably divided electorate.
The record also suggests that whatever the Republican criticisms of McCain, he won't fall far below 50% of the public that reliably leans toward his party. In other words, as present polls predict, we'll get another seesaw battle, in which either candidate can tip the result with minor mistakes or unexpected cunning, as they struggle through one more ferocious fight within the narrow confines of this half-century-old presidential deadlock.