The American people believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. When pollsters ask whether the country is on the right or the wrong track, wrong track prevails by better than two to one. And the American people are right. We are going the wrong way: The economy isn’t strong, the government doesn’t work, social trends aren’t great, and the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.
So of course the luminaries of the political world decided that the nominees of the two major parties were going to be the two individuals in the whole country least suited to prevail in a wrong-track, time-for-a-change moment: Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. It’s as if in 1788 the French ruling class were debating whether Marie Antoinette or the dauphin should succeed Louis XVI.
We’re not about to have a French Revolution (one hopes), and it’s possible one or both of the dynastic candidates will win their party’s nomination. But surely one lesson of the summer of 2015 is that an awful lot of voters aren’t in the mood to placidly accept such an outcome. Indeed, it’s the prospect of Hillary Antoinette that’s driving Democrats into the arms of their Robespierre, Bernie Sanders. It’s the thought of Bush XVII that’s energizing the supporters of Danton Trump.
Who else, other than Hillary and Jeb, is underperforming this year? Past and present governors. So Democrat Martin O’Malley and a host of Republican governors, all of whom thought their records in office would be valued by voters, haven’t been doing well. Those who’ve never held elective office—Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina—and the elected official who’s been in office the shortest time, Ted Cruz, are moving up in the polls.
The American political class of 2015, like the French political class of 1788, is bewildered and befuddled. Democratic elites are annoyed that their voters don’t seem sufficiently impressed by the need for a woman president, if all that means is a female set of hands steering the same train down the same wrong track. Republican elites are annoyed that their voters don’t thrill to the notion of a steady set of hands on the wheel, so the ride to perdition is a smooth and steady one.
But of course “their voters” are not their voters anymore. And it’s a wrong-track election not because the voters are deluded, crotchety, or temperamental. I repeat: It’s a wrong-track election because we’re on the wrong track.
The good news for Republicans is that Democrats have occupied the White House for the last eight years, and a wrong-track election naturally benefits the party out of power. The difficulty for Republicans is that the two best recent examples of an out-party benefiting from a wrong-track mood in a presidential race are when Democrats did so, in 1992 and 2008. And it’s hard for Republicans to learn from rather than merely resent Democratic victories.
In 1992, many of the leading lights of the Democratic party—Mario Cuomo, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore—chose not to run. A little-known governor from Arkansas, despite being bedeviled by bimbo eruptions, staggered to the nomination. As the Democratic convention began, Bill Clinton was in third place in general election polling, trailing an incumbent weakened by a surprise primary challenge from Pat Buchanan, and a man who had emerged from nowhere to run as an independent, Ross Perot. Then Clinton picked Gore as his running mate—recasting his party overnight to be younger, moderate, and somewhat hawkish. It was no longer the party of Mondale, Ferraro, Cuomo, and Dukakis. Clinton-Gore leapt some 20 points in the polls in two weeks. Perot ended up with 19 percent of the vote in November, and the Bush-Quayle ticket with 38 percent.
In 2008, the Republican primary was chaotic. John McCain, the eventual nominee, was fourth in the polls at this time in 2007. On the Democratic side, Barack Obama came from some 20 points down to defeat Hillary Clinton. Clinton had voted for the Iraq war, having internalized the lesson of 1992 that Democrats had to be relatively hawkish on foreign policy. But a wrong-track mood means that voters change their minds and will reward candidates for positions voters might have punished them for just a few years before.
That fact is, Republicans should win in 2016. Look at the swings against the incumbent party in those previous wrong-track elections. A GOP margin of 8 percentage points in 1988 turned to a deficit of 5 points in 1992—a 13-point swing. A 2004 GOP edge of 2 points turned to a deficit of 7 in 2008—a 9-point swing. Obama won 51 percent of the vote in 2012; even a smaller drop-off than those of 1992 and 2008 would put the Democratic nominee under water.