A Landslide Without Coattails?

Within the last few weeks, hardly a day has gone by in which someone did not email me or buttonhole me on the Hillsdale campus, wondering whether I still thought that Mitt Romney would win the Presidency by a landslide. My answer has always been the same. I thought that there was every likelihood that he would do so.

As some of you will remember, I laid out my reasoning in this regard on 8 August, when Romney was behind in the polls, in a blogpost on Ricochet entitled Landslide on the Horizon, and I stuck to it in September when nearly all of the pundits were wringing their hands. Here is how I began my post:

When I read Nate Silver, Sean Trende, Charlie Cook, Jay Cost, and the others who make a profession of political prognostication, I pay close attention to their attempts to dissect the polling data and predict what is to come. But I also take everything that they say with a considerable grain of salt. You see, I lived through the 1980 election, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I was struck at the time by the fact that next to no one among the political scientists who made a living out of studying presidential elections, communism in eastern Europe, and Sovietology saw any of these upheavals coming. Virtually all of them were caught flat-footed.

This is, in fact, what you would expect. They were all expert in the ordinary operations of a particular system, and within that framework they were pretty good at prognostication. But the apparent stability of the system had lured them into a species of false confidence – not unlike the false confidence that fairly often besets students of the stock market.

There were others, less expert in the particulars of these systems, who had a bit more distance and a bit more historical perspective and who saw it coming. The Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik wrote a prescient book entitled Can the Soviet Union Survive 1984?Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn predicted communism’s imminent collapse, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan suspected that the Soviet Union would soon face a fatal crisis. They were aware that institutions and outlooks that are highly dysfunctional will eventually and unexpectedly dissolve.

In my opinion, none of the psephologists mentioned above has  reflected on the degree to which the administrative entitlements state – envisaged by Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives, instituted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and expanded by their successors – has entered a crisis, and none of them is sensitive to the manner in which Barack Obama, in his audacity, has unmasked that state’s tyrannical propensities and its bankruptcy. In consequence, none of these psephologists has reflected adequately on the significance of the emergence of the Tea-Party Movement, on the meaning of Scott Brown’s election and the particular context within which he was elected, on the election of Chris Christie as Governor of New Jersey and of Bob McDonnell as Governor of Virginia, and on the political earthquake that took place in November, 2010. That earthquake, which gave the Republicans a strength at the state and local level that they have not enjoyed since 1928, is a harbinger of what we will see this November.

I acknowledged in my post that Romney was behind in the polls, and I noted that It looked like a neck-and-neck race, but I argued that this was due to the fact that Barack Obama was spending everything that he had “in a desperate attempt to demonize Mitt Romney,” and I asserted that Americans were “not yet paying attention,” adding that “Obama’s support is a mile wide and a quarter of an inch deep.” “Of course,” I continued,

if Romney were a corpse as yet unburied on the model of Bob Dole and John McCain, he would lose. If you do not all that much care whether you win or not, you will lose. But Romney wants to win. He is a man of vigor, and he has a wonderful case to make. He is a turn-around artist, and this country desperately needs turning around. Barack Obama has no argument to make. He can only promise more of the same — yet another stimulus and higher taxes on the investing class. All that Romney has to do if he wants to win is to make himself presentable, and that should not be hard. He is handsome, tolerably well-spoken, and accomplished. If, in the debates, he stands up to the President, he will seem the more presidential of the two – and that will do the trick, as it did in 1980.

The question that everyone will pose to himself on the first Tuesday in November is this: “Do I want four more years of this?” And Romney can drive it home: “Do you want four more years of massive unemployment? Do you want four more years of food stamps? Do you want to lose the job that you have? Do you want to be out of work when you get out of college? Or do you want to see this country get moving again? Barack Obama took his shot – the stimulus bill, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank. And where has it left us? With the most anemic recovery in the history of this country!”

Romney can go on to speak of Obamacare. He can point to the corruption that Barack Obama brought from Chicago to Washington. He need only mention Solyndra and sound the theme of crony capitalism. Romney can also point to the President’s systematic misuse of the executive power – to defraud the salaried employees of Delphi and the bondholders of General Motors and Chrysler, to gut the welfare reform passed by New Gingrich and adopted by Bill Clinton, to let school systems out of No Child Left Behind, to sick the IRS on political enemies, to force people into unions, to encourage voter fraud, to deprive Catholics and other Christians of the free exercise of their religion. The list is long.

When the American people pause to pay attention, they will not vote for four more years of misery, four more years of corruption, four more years of lawlessness, four more years of race-baiting, and they will certainly not vote to embrace Obamacare.

In fact, Romney has done nearly everything that I suggested in early August. He kept his powder dry; he let Obama spend and spend and spend. Then come October, in the first debate, he forcefully raised all of the issues that I pointed to in the second of these four paragraphs and some of those outlined in the third of these paragraphs, and the issues that he did not raise in the debates were pressed in the advertising blitz mounted by his campaign and the SuperPACs supporting him – and this had precisely the effect that I suggested. Crowds jammed his rallies. He moved up dramatically in the polls, and states that seemed out of reach became contested.

In the last three months, I have been reading the polls, and I am aware that it has been made to look like a neck-and-neck race. But when I am in a position to peer under the hood of the polls that show President Obama ahead, I have consistently discovered that the poll operates under a preposterous assumption – that the voting public this coming Tuesday will be almost as Democratic or even more Democratic than the voting public was on the first Tuesday in November in 2008. The results that these pollsters get are baked in the cake. They are virtually certain consequences of  the assumptions on which their polling is based. Everyone knows that, if the partisan predilections of the electorate in 2012 closely resembles those in 2008, the results will be pretty much the same.

The assumptions made by these pollster are, in fact, absurd.  They ignore the turnout record for the two parties in 2010 – a year more recent than 2008 – and they ignore the fact that the issues in this Presidential election are those that animated the elector in 2010 – Obamacare, the deficit, etc. – not those that animated it in 2008. Moreover, both Gallup and Rasmussen, the two pollsters that carefully track party identification over time, report that party identification for those likely to vote  in 2012 is virtually identical to the party identification of those who actually voted two years ago and radically different from what party identification was in 2008.

To be precise, in 2008, Gallup found that 39% of the electorate self-identified as Democrats and that 29% self-identified as Republicans. Today, the respective numbers are 35% and 36%. When one takes leaners into account the split in 2008 was  54-42, and today it is  46-49. Sympathy for the Democrats has dropped by 8% and sympathy for the Republicans has jumped by 7%. That is a 15% shift.

To this we can add any number of indicators – to begin with, the fact that the Obama campaign has in effect abandoned Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia; the fact that Romney is clearly competitive in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota – states that Republicans have not won in many years; the fact that the Obama campaign is thrashing about with talk of Romnesia and revenge; the fact that Romney has been endorsed by Newsday, The New York Daily News, the Des Moines Register, the Las Vegas Review Journal, and a host of other papers that, like these, have almost never in recent years endorsed a Republican Presidential nominee.

I could go on and on. But if you want to read an account of Romney’s prospects more sober and cautious than my own, take a look at what Michael Barone had to say in The Washington Examiner on Saturday. His state-by-state analysis deserves close attention.

I would disagree with Michael in only one particular. I believe, as I have believed since early August, that Romney’s victory will be much more impressive than Michael imagines. What happened in 2010 is going to be confirmed in spades. The electorate will break for him on Tuesday as they broke for Ronald Reagan on the first Tuesday in November in 1980.

Let me add that I believe something else as well – that, when it is all over, the adult wing of the Democratic Party (what is left of it) will breathe an audible sigh of relief. Barack Obama has done his party more harm than any President in the last hundred years (Jimmy Carter included); and, loyal partisans though these Democrats may be, they know it and they know that it is unimaginable that being a lame duck would improve the man’s performance. Four more years, and they would really be cooked.

When I look to 6 November, I have only one worry. I believe that the Republicans will hold onto almost all of their seats in the House of Representatives. I could, in fact, easily imagine their making small gains. The Senate is another matter. For understandable reasons, Mitt Romney has concentrated on his own campaign. To this end, he has run a personal and not a partisan campaign. He has asked that people vote for him because he is likely to be a more competent executive than the man now holding the Presidential office. He has also, at times, argued that the President is utterly wrongheaded, but this is not what he has most often emphasized. For this, he may pay a price. He may do what Ronald Reagan did in 1984 – win a landslide for himself but not for his party — and win support for his managerial abilities but not for his program.

To do what Romney needs to do, he has to have a cooperative Senate, and there is no way that Harry Reid, who despises Romney, will play ball. Nor is it likely that the Democrats in the Senate will buck their leadership. As the last few years have made clear, those up for reelection will be afraid of primary opposition from the left, and those with longer horizons will figure that, when they come up for re-election, Romney’s leverage will be minimal.

It is common for politicians in general — and for Republican presidential nominees in particular — to operate on the basis of short-term calculations. This is nearly always a mistake, and I suspect that next year Mitt Romney will very much regret not having run a more partisan campaign. The Republicans as a whole should have done this year what Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in the House did in 1994 and what John Boehner and his merry men did in 2010. They should have had all their candidates, Romney included, ostentatiously sign on to an ambitious reform program. Had they done so, on Tuesday, we would be celebrating a Republican sweep. As things stand, the senatorial elections seem to me to be turning on local issues, and we will, I fear, lose some elections that we could have won had we nationalized them.

– If you wish to join the conversation on this post, we invite you to click here to sign up for a One-Month Free Trial. Enjoy great content and podcasts, post your own opinions, converse with leading figures on the Right, and much more. Ricochet - The Right People. The Right Tone. The Right Place. –

  1. Douglas

    Have to disagree with you here. I’ve come to the conclusion that Romney either wins big or doesn’t win at all… no squeeking past 270 for him. So if he wins big, it’s highly unlikely that he doesn’t have coattails. After all, it’s all about turnout, and the vast majority of people pulling the lever for Romney will in overwhelming instances also pull the lever for candidates at Senate/House/Gubernatorial levels that have similar policies. That means a Republican Senate, holding the House, and picking up some governor’s seats. We’re either going to win big across the board, or lose in the biggest disappointment since “Dewey defeats Truman”.

  2. Douglas
    ~Paules: I’ll disagree with Professor Rahe on one point.  If the election is decided by turn-out, Republicans will gain more senate seats than anyone expects.  The scenario is dependent on turn-out, not coattails.    · 4 hours ago

    My argument is that turnout more or less equals coattails here. It’s not so much a pro-Romney wave as it is a “kick out Obama” wave. It’s the anti-Bush 2006 Congressional elections in reverse,  in two parts, just as 2006 and 2008 was all about cleaning house of Bush and his party. 2010 and 2012 are about giving Barack Obama the broom, and that includes Harry Reid’s Senate. Recall that when Reagan won in 80, the GOP also took the Senate in a wave. Part two of 1994′s wave… the 96 Presidential election… was “canceled” because Clinton… wily survivor that he is… co-opted Republican positions (“The era of Big Government is over”) and had the good fortune to have Bob Dole as his opponent. Had Romney continued to run a bad campaign, Obama would still win. But the debates changed all that. Now voters see a viable choice, and so out goes Bronco Bama.

  3. Frank Monaldo

    I thought the exact same words, before I even read your post. Amen.

    Colin B Lane: From your lips to God’s ears, professor. · 6 hours ago

  4. James Of England
    ~Paules: I’ll disagree with Professor Rahe on one point.  If the election is decided by turn-out, Republicans will gain more senate seats than anyone expects.  The scenario is dependent on turn-out, not coattails.    · 4 hours ago

    Turnout is great for the states where he’s competing. Mandel may be a great guy, but the debates don’t seem to have gone well for him and he hasn’t been as inspiring an electoral candidate as the insanely corrupt and progressive Brown, the Daily Kos’ favorite candidate (even ahead of Warren). Indeed, I suspect that Mandel’s reverse coattails are partly why we’re looking so hard for non-Ohio solutions. Likewise, Mitt has good coattails in Florida, but it’s not a lot of use.

    Where Romney will be likely to have coattails that matter would be Wisconsin and Virginia. Again, we’re not in the lead there, but Mitt’s turnout rather than advertising focused campaign might make the difference.

    The bulk of the difference between Reagan’s coattails and Mitt’s is that Reagan had massively more support from the grassroots than Carter, whereas this time Obama’s had more donations, volunteers, and such.

  5. Frank Monaldo

    For the record, in 1980, the weekend before the election, on the show Agronsky and Company, George Will predicted a Reagan landslide or Carter, while sage Elizabeth Drew said it was too close to call. May history repeat itself in this case.  It would should sure be nice to see what the internal polls say.

  6. BlueAnt

    I must disagree on a crucial point:

    Let me add that I believe something else as well – that, when it is all over, the adult wing of the Democratic Party (what is left of it) will breathe an audible sigh of relief. Barack Obama has done his party more harm than any President in the last hundred years…

    Careful observation of the national Democratic Party suggests there are no adults left inside.  

    And I don’t mean that in the usual flippant partisan the-other-side-is-dumb namecalling.  I am a political junkie, and I obsess over the minutiae of policy fights and political inside baseball, yet I find it a challenge to name one prominent Democratic voice calling for fiscal responsibility, a reversal of the welfare state, a rejection of identity politics, or other such mature responses to the rampant liberal faction.

    If enough of the Democratic party is captured by the “give me more” wing, then a candidate like Obama is actually motivation to come out and vote in larger numbers. Sadly, the Tea Party spirit has its polar opposite in today’s electorate; what rallies one side in anger, rallies the other as well in support.

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Dave

    Paul A. Rahe:

    When I read Nate Silver, Sean Trende, Charlie Cook, Jay Cost, and the others who make a profession of political prognostication, I pay close attention to their attempts to dissect the polling data and predict what is to come. But I also take everything that they say with a considerable grain of salt. You see, I lived through the 1980 election, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I was struck at the time by the fact that next to no one among the political scientists who made a living out of studying presidential elections, communism in eastern Europe, and Sovietology saw any of these upheavals coming. Virtually all of them were caught flat-footed.

    I really enjoyed this passage, as it shows how an historian thinks differently from a social scientist. Yes, the models are important and useful and should not be ignored. But we live in a world of contingency, not models. That’s an historian’s insight. · 8 hours ago

    Nicely put. Thank you.

  8. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Eeyore: Prof. R, do you think it was a conscious choice to go solo, or simply a lack of critical mass in the party pushing that strategy? · 8 hours ago

    It was instinct. That is what he always did in Massachusetts. He ran as a reformer, not a Republican — albeit on the Republican ticket. Romney’s default position is to be above politics. It is generally the way businessmen see themselves. Little do they know . . .

  9. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    ~Paules: I’ll disagree with Professor Rahe on one point.  If the election is decided by turn-out, Republicans will gain more senate seats than anyone expects.  The scenario is dependent on turn-out, not coattails.    · 8 hours ago

    I sincerely hope that you are right.

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Cattle King: I recall someone writing, “[Romney] was a consistent supporter of programs like Obamacare until this election campaign, and the minute he thinks that he can get away with it, he will once again show his true colors. “  Who wrote that?  Oh, it was Paul Rahe. · 7 hours ago

    Paul Rahe still worries about that. Romney likes to present himself as a man above politics, as the exemplar of bipartisanship. His choice of Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential nominee persuaded me that he might have learned something along the way. We will see.

  11. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    KC Mulville: In the recent podcast Scott Reuser mentioned that, unlike Wisconsin, Ohio’s reforms failed because the ground hadn’t been prepared. As someone said, Mitch Daniels wisely didn’t pursue dramatic reforms when he didn’t campaign on them first. 

    Romney’s campaign has been a rejection of Obama – for which I’m certainly in agreement. But if all of Obama’s “innovations” are rejected, that still leaves us back where we were in 2008. We still have some significant challenges.  Healthcare would still be a challenge, for instance. 

    Reagan managed to do two things at the same time: he rejected Carter and laid out a plan for the future. His 1980 victory was a mandate to pursue supply-side, as well as a blanket rejection of Carter. I’m not entirely sure that Romney has that same double-edged sword. The country is certainly ready to dump Obama, but if Romney wins, exactly what has he prepared the ground for? 

    Of course, at the moment, I’ll happily take what I can get.  · 7 hours ago

    Me, too.

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Douglas: Have to disagree with you here. I’ve come to the conclusion that Romney either wins big or doesn’t win at all… no squeeking past 270 for him. So if he wins big, it’s highly unlikely that he doesn’t have coattails. After all, it’s all about turnout, and the vast majority of people pulling the lever for Romney will in overwhelming instances also pull the lever for candidates at Senate/House/Gubernatorial levels that have similar policies. That means a Republican Senate, holding the House, and picking up some governor’s seats. We’re either going to win big across the board, or lose in the biggest disappointment since “Dewey defeats Truman”. · 3 hours ago

    Maybe — but Reagan won big in 1984 and lost ground in the Senate. Think about that.

  13. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    BlueAnt: I must disagree on a crucial point:

    Careful observation of the national Democratic Party suggests there arenoadults left inside.  

    And I don’t mean that in the usual flippant partisan the-other-side-is-dumb namecalling.  I am a political junkie, and I obsess over the minutiae of policy fights and political inside baseball, yet I find it a challenge to nameoneprominent Democratic voice calling for fiscal responsibility, a reversal of the welfare state, a rejection of identity politics, or other such mature responses to the rampant liberal faction.

    If enough of the Democratic party is captured by the “give me more” wing, then a candidate like Obama is actually motivation to come out and vote in larger numbers. Sadly, the Tea Party spirit has its polar opposite in today’s electorate; what rallies one side in anger, rallies the other as well in support. · 1 hour ago

    None left inside not afraid to speak up, yes. But none left inside, no. Bill Daley is one.

  14. Viator

    I expect the GOP national campaign and the anti-Obama surge has coattails. For example:

    “Romney’s Yardley rally; Bucks County was very hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, a large number of locals still lack electric power (including me), and the weather took a nasty cold snap. The cloud ceiling was rain-threateningly low, the air damp with a brisk wind. Anyone with any sense (and no power) would have been elsewhere, and without electricity it was pretty hard to disseminate news of the rally….The crowd was enormous……

    “The final Susquehanna (Pennsylvania) Polling & Research Poll shows a 47-47% tie heading into the Tuesday election…In the last three statewide contests, Susquehanna had an average margin of error from the actual result of one point, making them Pennsylvania’s most accurate pollster.”

    From all reports Tom Smith has run an excellent campaign. Are people really going to split tickets against a strong senate candidate?

    My hunch is there will be more GOP senate victories than some anticipate.

  15. Brian Clendinen

    Count me as one who was in your camp since I read your August 8th artical. Since then I have been way more conerned about the Sentate which is almost as important. That is were I have a lot of worries. I still think we have about a 49% chance of tieing the Sentate.

  16. Keith Preston

    I think the turnout is also a desire to “throw the bums out.”  And no one has been a bigger bum than Harry Reid’s “do-nothing” Senate.

    We will lose some close ones, but may steal a few dark horse contests like Linda Lingle in Hawaii.  When the race is called early, how many Democrats will take a pass on voting in the 50th State? Maybe enough to allow Linda to defeat Lazy Mazie a second time.  It might be worth staying up late to see…

    I think we take the Senate back as well.

  17. Colin B Lane

    From your lips to God’s ears, professor.

  18. Schrodinger

    Mitt close in MI but no coattails.

    FYI Mostly good news on the Michigan ballot proposals:

    Props 2,3,4 all poll No 51% or more.

    http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/story/19996971/final-poll-numbers-on-michigan-proposals-1-6

  19. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Keith Preston: I think the turnout is also a desire to “throw the bums out.”  And no one has been a bigger bum than Harry Reid’s “do-nothing” Senate.

    We will lose some close ones, but may steal a few dark horse contests like Linda Lingle in Hawaii.  When the race is called early, how many Democrats will take a pass on voting in the 50th State? Maybe enough to allow Linda to defeat Lazy Mazie a second time.  It might be worth staying up late to see…

    I think we take the Senate back as well. · 52 minutes ago

    Let’s hope.