By Jeff Greenfield
I’ve tried, really I have.
But I just can’t.
Every time I start to write about why Clinton, Biden, Rubio, Christie, Ryan, Cuomo, O’Malley, Paul, Walker, Warren will or won’t run or will win or lose, reminders of the past begin to play in my mind. And I’m reminded of how often and how quickly rock-solid political certainties have crumbled.
Suppose, for example, you were looking at the political landscape in 1989, just after the Republicans won the White House for the third consecutive time. You would note that the GOP won every Southern state, all eight states in the interior West, four of the six New England states, and New Jersey, Illinois and California—each of them for the sixth consecutive presidential election. You’d observe that since 1964, the Republicans had won five of six presidential elections, losing only the post-Watergate contest of 1976. You’d echo the dominant piece of political wisdom: that the Republican Party had an “electoral lock” on the White House.
If someone had suggested back then that New Jersey, Illinois and California would each record Democratic landslides or near-landslides for the next six presidential elections, you’d have shaken your head at such obvious political ignorance.
Or suppose it was the morning after the 2004 election, when George W. Bush won the pivotal state of Ohio in part because social conservatives turned out to approve a ban on gay marriage—as did voters in all 13 states where the issue was on the ballot. Would you have dared assume that eight years later, voters in four states either sanctioned gay marriage or refused to prohibit it? Or that when President Barack Obama belatedly endorsed the idea, he was accused of changing his mind for political advantage?
Of course not. You’d have been asked, “What have you been smoking?” (That’s the same question you’d have been asked a few elections back if you’d predicted that voters would approve the use of recreational marijuana, which voters in two states did in November.)
Not so long ago, every election cycle would feature a hundred voices intoning, “No one has ever won the White House without first winning the New Hampshire primary.” Now a footnote is required: “except the last three presidents.”
Until last year, it was a political rule of near-scientific certainty: “No Republican has won the nomination without winning the South Carolina primary.” Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney laid that one to rest.
Until the 2000 election, religiosity told us almost nothing about political preferences. Since that election, it’s been one of the more reliable indicators: Regular churchgoers lean heavily Republican; less observant or secular voters lean heavily Democratic.
So just how confident can a prognosticator be in assuming that the demographics of the 2012 election are reliable guides to the future? If congressional Republicans really embrace immigration reform and if a Hispanic winds up on the GOP national ticket in 2016, can Democrats continue to rely on winning the Latino vote by a near 3-to-1 margin, as they did last November? For its part, can the Republican Party embrace a version of immigration reform that alienates a significant part of its base without risking defections, possibly in the form of a third party?
These questions pale in the face of those “unknown unknowns” that so often upend core political assumptions. After the LBJ-Goldwater campaign of 1964, last rites were being administered to the Republican Party. Within a year, the escalation of the Vietnam War, along with racial and generational conflict at home, had pulled the Democratic Party apart.
After the Republican capture of the Senate in 2002, and George W. Bush’s re-election as president two years later, Karl Rove argued that his party had been “rebranded” and was well on its way to becoming a more or less permanent majority, much as William McKinley had led Republicans to dominance a century earlier. Iraq, Katrina and a global financial meltdown took care of that prophecy.
So, much as I’d love to join my colleagues in confidently charting the future, history tells me this is a fool’s errand.
Besides, if you had co-authored a book in 1971 that predicted that the next president of the United States would be New York Mayor John Lindsay, you’d be a bit gun-shy, too.
By Jeff Greenfield