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Strange Tales

Herein lie stories of coincidence and chance: What do the Final Four, the Rule of 14, and middle names have to do with the 2004 presidential elections?

11:00 PM, Mar 29, 2004 • By BILL WHALEN
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SPRING HAS SPRUNG, which politically means it isn't pollen season but instead the pallid period between the primaries and the conventions. For scribes and pundits, that means open season for all sorts of crackpot thinking.

A warning: a few of these conspiracy theories, even Oliver Stone might dismiss. But hopefully it's enough to keep you entertained until there's real campaign news to report . . . or John Kerry's next round of extreme sports . . . or another "tell-all" book by a disgruntled bureaucrat.

To wit:

"Height makes might" ain't always right. From 1904 to 1984, the taller presidential candidate won 80 percent of the time. But not so in the 2000 election: George W. Bush bested the taller Al Gore, who earlier had dismissed the less vertically challenged Bill Bradley. Note to the Bush campaign: the moment the lanky Kerry starts calling himself a "New Age Rail Splitter," remind voters that Teddy Roosevelt was only 5'8".

The presidential "Rule of 14." For the party out of power, the dream candidate makes a 14-year climb to the White House. It's true of Ronald Reagan (elected governor of California in 1966; president in 1980); Bill Clinton (elected governor of Arkansas in 1978; president in 1992); Jimmy Carter (first ran for office in 1962; won the presidency in 1976); and John F. Kennedy (first elected to the U.S. House in 1946; elected president in 1960). Under this rule, Kerry should scratch his first Senate term from his résumé and reset his political clock to 1990 (which would also eliminate some now-regrettable votes).

What's in a name? In the 19th Century, gentlemen-candidates who publicly sported a middle name tended not to be two-term presidents: John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, James Knox Polk, James Abram Garfield. It may partially explain why Grover Cleveland dropped his first name, Stephen, from his political persona (that, and his family's habit of addressing each other by their middle names). If the election remains tight after Labor Day, will the New York Times suddenly change its style rule to "George Walker Bush"?

"4" Factor. Since the advent of the two-party system, only once has the party that won in a "0" year election lost it in the subsequent "4" year contest. That was 1884, when one-and-out Republican Chester Alan Arthur (there's that pesky middle name again) chose not to run. Two differences between then and now: Arthur inherited the presidency after Garfield's assassination; and the GOP had controlled the White House for the previous 24 years (whereas the White House changed party hands four times in the 24 years from 1976 to 2000).

Hoop dreams? . . . From 1940 to 1972, the home state of the NCAA men's basketball champ also voted for the winning presidential candidate (the lone exception: 1960, when Ohio State won it all and Nixon didn't). Since 1988, the tournament has alternated from winner to loser, this year being the winning candidate's turn to carry the champ's state. The advantage here: Bush. Three of the teams in next weekend's "Final Four"--Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech and Duke--come from Republican "red" states. If you're a Democrat, the Connecticut Huskies are your team.

. . . Or field of dreams? Here's an oddity that might interest our baseball-loving president. Five times over the past century--the elections of 1912, 1932, 1960, 1976, and 1992--a Democrat has replaced a Republican in the White House. In each of those years, the winning Democrat also carried the home states of the two teams that played in the previous month's World Series. For Kerry, it's one more reason to pull for a Cubs-Red Sox series, with Massachusetts and Illinois safe Democratic bets. Then again, all bets are off if that occurs, as Hell will have frozen over.

Fair warning. Yale economist Ray Fair has a model for predicting the outcome of two-party votes, based on economic variables such as inflation and GDP growth. In early February, he predicted 58.7 percent of the two-party vote for Bush (up from 58.3 percent in October). It's bad news for Kerry. Since he started this voting forecast back in 1978, Fair has never misgauged the incumbent party's vote by more than 1.9 percent.

State(s) uncertain. Call it the "something's-got-to-give" election. If Bush wins, odds are he becomes the first president to be elected and reelected without once carrying California. Kerry, meanwhile, could be the first Democrat to win despite going 0-for-the-Confederacy (13 southern and border states, including Missouri). The last president to win with no help whatsoever from the South: William Howard Taft, in 1908. Like Kerry (and Bush), Taft was a Yalie--albeit more interested in snow cones than snowboarding.