The Bush Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Election

Posted November 7, 2007 at 5:15pm

If there is one question that, when answered, should help us anticipate the 2008 results, it is likely to be this one: How much of an impact will President Bush have on voters’ decisions next year? [IMGCAP(1)]

Unfortunately, history isn’t much of a guide, since there is just a single case in the post-war era when the party of a retiring president did not nominate his vice president to succeed him. That happened in 1952, when Democrats chose Adlai Stevenson for president over Vice President Alben Barkley (Stevenson actually was outgoing President Harry Truman’s choice).

In 1928, the sitting vice president, Charles Dawes, joined President Calvin Coolidge in deciding not to seek another term, thereby creating the situation that exists this election cycle. But the nature of our politics (and technology) has changed so much since 1928, and even 1952, that those two cases are of limited value in trying to understand 2008.

The recent cases where a sitting vice president has tried to move up to the White House show mixed results. George H.W. Bush won election to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988, while history shows that both Al Gore (2000) and Richard Nixon (1960) lost close, disputed races.

Bush clearly benefited from Reagan’s presidency, since he portrayed his election essentially as a third Reagan term. But while Reagan left office with a job approval of more than 50 percent, polls taken during the summer of 1988, and even after the conventions, consistently showed Democrat Michael Dukakis with the lead. Bush ended up winning comfortably because he ran the far better campaign and only after Dukakis flopped as a candidate.

Nixon lost in 1960 even though President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s popularity at the end of his second term stood at 60 percent, according to Gallup. Obviously, the candidates, their campaigns and their messages mattered a great deal.

Hubert Humphrey was saddled with a divided Democratic Party and an unpopular president when he failed to win the White House in 1968. But the vice president almost pulled off a remarkable come-from-behind victory even though he was hurt by George Wallace’s third-party bid that siphoned off the electoral votes of five historically Democratic Southern states.

Gore’s 2000 loss is the hardest to assess. Outgoing President Bill Clinton’s popularity was similar to Eisenhower’s in 1960, yet it’s a matter of intense dispute whether Gore lost because of voters’ disgust with Clinton (and their desire to “turn the page” on his scandal) or because Gore did not embrace the successes of the Clinton years more enthusiastically.

Of all the cases, 1952 may be the best analogy to 2008, though there are important differences with it and 2008.

Both elections took place in the shadow of widely unpopular wars (Korea and Iraq), with the out-party running on change and cleaning up Washington, D.C. Truman, like Bush, exercised executive power over the objection of Congress, such as seizing control of the nation’s steel mills, and his administration was beset by controversy.

It’s true that Democrats had controlled the White House for 20 years when 1952 rolled around, but the past eight years seem like at least 20 years to Bush’s critics.

The greatest difference between 1952 and 2008 is likely to be the nominees. In ’52, the non-incumbent party, the Republicans, nominated a popular war hero who was above partisan politics — a far cry from any of the top three Democrats competing for their party’s nomination this time. Democrats, in turn, nominated a liberal reformer who couldn’t compete with Ike’s reputation or experience.

Those cases demonstrate that a popular outgoing president can’t automatically pass the White House on to his party’s next nominee. But there are too few cases to draw any conclusions about an unpopular president. In 1952, Truman clearly was a problem for Stevenson. But the two parties’ particular nominees in that race contributed to the Democrats’ problem.

This cycle, many Republicans are making the argument that in the 2008 election, George W. Bush will be irrelevant. Voters will have “turned the page” on him and will be looking toward the future rather than the past, they insist.

Some Republican strategists assert confidently that voters will be evaluating the party’s presidential nominee, not Bush, and that the party’s image will be repaired once Bush is perceived as part of the past, not the future.

Democrats counter that while Bush will not be on the ballot, his war will still be going on and Republicans will not be able to run from his record or from their support for him during his presidency. They insist that the election will allow voters to choose between change and continuity, and that the Republicans will represent continuity and Democrats will represent change.

Who is more likely to be correct?

In midterms, many Americans vote retrospectively. That is, they base their decisions on past performance. In presidential elections, they tend to look forward, to evaluate the nominees on the basis of how they will perform in office.

But is it reasonable to believe that voters completely disregard past performance — a party’s past performance — when an unpopular president leaves office? Probably not.

After all, Democrats have plenty of tape of Bush making promises that were not kept and asserting truths that turned out not to be true. And they’ll be running against a party that has been defined for the past few years by its leader, the president of the United States. That means the Republican nominee for president will inevitably be the candidate of continuity rather than dramatic change, no matter how passionately he delivers a message of change.

It’s also true, however, that once the GOP has a presidential nominee, he will start to redefine the public’s image of the Republican Party. George W. Bush will seem less relevant, less important. But he will never disappear. That doesn’t doom the Republican nominee, but it puts him in a hole even before the race has begun.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.