Do yourself a favor. If you ever hear the phrase, “no president has ever been re-elected when…” or “no challenger has ever defeated an incumbent when…”, politely walk away, and never listen to another thing that person says about politics.
It is tough to get away from, for sure. In the 24 hour news cycle, and with online media growing at a seemingly geometric rate, there is a lot of time and space to fill. To satisfy our never ending thirst for information and analysis, you are likely to hear such commentary every day until the election.
But, funny thing about things that never happen. They really do never happen, until that is, they happen.
Take, for instance, the endless parade of prognosticators who said “debates don’t matter, and have never really moved presidential contests” in the past.
In fairness to them, they were more or less right. Even famously lopsided debates – like Reagan’s performances in 1980 and 1984 against his Democratic challengers, or Bill Clinton’s 1992 moment facing off against George H.W. Bush – didn’t really change much.
Reagan was facing sluggish polls in both years, but political scientists today agree that he was never in much danger of losing, and without the debates his margin may have been slightly smaller, but he would have still won.
Similarly, Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 is owed to a combination of economic recession and the presence of Ross Perot in the race, not George Bush looking at his watch.
So, it wasn’t outrageous to say that debates don’t matter. They had never mattered before.
Until it mattered this year. After Mitt Romney completely disassembled the listless and lethargic ghost of Barack Obama on the debate stage last Thursday, the race fundamentally changed.
Prior to the debate, a media swarm had ensued around Romney, waiting for the campaign’s death rattle. The inaugural preparations for Barack Obama had already begun. Romney was down by five points nationally, and was losing traction in every single swing state.
Flash forward to today, and so thorough was the drubbing he gave the president, that Mitt Romney is now winning the race. In poll after poll he is leading by anywhere from one to five points (with a couple exceptions), and now appears poised to win states like Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and even Colorado.
Other states where he was down by increasing margins, like Ohio, are now deadlocked. This “debate bounce” has been sustained for a week now, so it isn’t a minor aberration. This is the new normal.
The trouble with conventional wisdom, particularly in presidential politics, is that the country is constantly changing, as are the parties and the candidates. You are dealing with a small sample size of elections to draw data (and conclusions) from, and much of what you learn from the past is outdated two or three elections later.
I don’t know anyone in politics who takes many lessons from the Roosevelt, Johnson Nixon or Reagan landslides of the past. The variables are too different.
It isn’t just debates. You have often heard that no president has ever been re-elected with an unemployment rate above 7.2%. The unemployment rate is currently at 7.8% and will undoubtedly be higher than 7.2% on election day. Yet, president Obama still stands a good chance of being re-elected.
The fact is, this election isn’t past elections.
The debates mattered this year because the American people aren’t feeling very positive about President Obama’s leadership, but Mitt Romney had yet to prove he was up to the task of replacing him.
Allowing voters to see the two candidates standing side by side on the stage gave them something to actually judge for themselves. It was a way to compare and contrast the two for the first time, and Romney made an effective case.
Similarly, President Obama may get re-elected with an alarmingly high unemployment rate because voters like him personally a great deal more than they liked Jimmy Carter, or George H.W. Bush or any of the other “bad economy” presidents in recent memory.
The old rules and past lessons of campaigns are nothing more than very vague indications of what may happen this year, in the broadest and least specific of ways.
But that won’t stop some enterprising pundit from stating emphatically, with purpose and conviction that “this simply will not happen” because it never has before. Well, maybe it won’t. Until it will.