WASHINGTON — It was Henry Ford who said “history is bunk” as he was busy reinventing American industry a century ago. Well, Ford is the man to see about this presidential campaign. So far, patterns of the past haven’t predicted a thing, and it’s going to remain that way right up to Election Day. For, based on history, neither George W. Bush nor John F. Kerry has a chance.
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Let’s look at the patterns that have been shattered already, in the nominating season just ended. In modern times — since the advent of contested primaries — the major parties always had nominated the guy who collected the most cash and who led in the Gallup Poll by the end of the year before the voting began.
This time around, of course, that guy was the unstoppable Gov. Howard Dean. He had raised an unheard of $40 million and led in all the national polls — not to mention the local polls in key “early” states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
Poof! He was gone, with a triumphant John Kerry standing in his place.
Second pattern shattered
Kerry’s rise shattered the second pattern: that the Iowa caucuses aren’t that important or predictive. Winners there — people such as George H.W. Bush in 1980, Dick Gephardt and Bob Dole in 1988 — tended, on balance, not to go on to win the nomination. This time, in retrospect, it is clear that Iowa was the ballgame. Kerry and his strategists bet it all on Iowa, and they were right.
Pattern No. 3, a corollary of No. 2, was the Inevitable Late Challenger. Especially in the Democratic nominating race, the historians pointed out, someone always arises late in the game to challenge the front-runner. It’s the way the primary rules are set up, we were told. Past examples: Jerry Brown in 1976, Gary Hart hanging on to score some late victories in 1984, Bill Bradley in 2000.
It didn’t really happen this time. Sen. John Edwards inherited the role of Late Challenger, but it was too late, and he had no staying power, and he was out by the close of business on Super Tuesday. No Brown, no Hart, no Bradley.
So what are the historical “rules” waiting to be ignored in the general election now begun?
One of them is that the Democrats can’t win unless a Southerner tops the ticket, and/or unless that ticket can win at least five Southern and border states.
Kerry himself scoffs at this notion. He thinks he can win in November without a single Southern state. But look at the pattern and you will see it: the shared regional roots and risings of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Even with the advent of Republican power in the South, the Democrats can’t afford to concede it, or so history would seem to say. The last Northern Democrat to win the presidency was John F. Kennedy in 1960 — and even he, in the days before the solid GOP South, won six Southern states.
History lesson No 2: Governors, not members of Congress, get elected. The last sitting senator to win the presidency was, again, Kennedy, and he was a rarity. In recent years, a roster of senators and former senators — George McGovern, Bob Dole, Al Gore — ran and lost. Dole even quit the Senate, to no avail.
With no Southern base, a New Englander by birth and breeding, a sitting senator of 20 years standing, Kerry — based on history — would seem to have no chance.
Except that he does, of course — if for no other reason than the history, in some ways, is against Bush.
The 50 percent approval factor
General Election Rule No. 2: Incumbent presidents lose if their job-performance numbers dip below 50 percent as the campaign season begins. Bush’s is hovering at that level, depending on which polling survey you watch.
The corollary: No incumbent president can win re-election if the Dow Jones and the employment numbers are lower than they were when he was sworn in. In terms of job losses, Bush is in a category so far occupied by only one other GOP incumbent: Herbert Hoover, and we all know what happened to him. The economy is picking up, but there still is no surge in hiring. It’s highly doubtful that, at least in terms of hourly payroll, there will be more people working in the fall of 2004 than there were in January of 2001. Will bragging about the “right direction” of the economy be enough? We’ll see.
One way or the other, history is going to be bunk — again.
Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.