Comparing the Bush and Reagan Eras
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In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:
(covering polls and related articles from the weeks of Nov. 22-28, 2004)
- Comparing the Bush and Reagan Eras
- No Honeymoon for Bush, No Parity on Party Identification for Republicans
- How Important Were the Fast-Growing Counties to Bush's Victory
Ron Brownstein had an interesting column, GOP's Future Sits Precariously on Small Cushion of Victory" in the Los Angeles Times last Monday that put Bush's reelection victory in some much-needed historical context. He pointed out:
Measured as a share of the popular vote, Bush beat Kerry by just 2.9 percentage points [actually now down to 2.7 points]. ... That's the smallest margin of victory for a re-elected president since 1828.
The only previous incumbent who won a second term nearly so narrowly was Democrat Woodrow Wilson: In 1916, he beat Republican Charles E. Hughes by 3.1 percentage points. Apart from Truman in 1948 (whose winning margin was 4.5 percentage points), every other president elected to a second term since 1832 has at least doubled the margin that Bush had over Kerry.
In that 1916 election, Wilson won only 277 out of 531 electoral college votes. That makes Wilson the only re-elected president in the past century who won with fewer electoral college votes than Bush's 286.
Measured another way, Bush won 53 percent of the 538 electoral college votes available this year. Of all the chief executives reelected since the 12th Amendment separated the vote for president and vice president – a group that stretches back to Thomas Jefferson in 1804 – only Wilson (at 52 percent) won a smaller share of the available electoral college votes.
But, even more interesting to me, since I've been pondering the comparison between the Bush era and the Reagan era, is the following point he makes about what a reelection victory has usually meant to the incumbent party and what typically has followed that re-election victory:
Throughout American history, the re-election of a president has usually been a high-water mark for the president's party [emphasis added]. In almost every case, the party that won re-election has lost ground in the next presidential election, both in the popular vote and in the electoral college.
The decline has been especially severe in the past half century. Since 1952 there have been six presidential elections immediately following a president's reelection. In those six races, the candidate from the incumbent's party has fallen short of the reelection numbers by an average of 207 electoral college votes and 8.4 percentage points in the popular vote.
Because his margin was so tight, Bush didn't leave the GOP with enough of a cushion to survive even a fraction of that erosion in four years. Even if the GOP in 2008 matches the smallest electoral college fall-off in the past half century – the 99-vote decline between Reagan in 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988 – that would still leave the party well short of a majority.
Very interesting stuff indeed. And it suggests that comparing the GOP's previous reelection victory and the current one is an exercise with more than academic implications.
Start with the obvious: Reagan got 58.8 percent of the popular vote in 1984, besting his Democratic opponent by 18.2 percentage points, compared to Bush's 2.7 point victory margin, and carried 98 percent of the electoral vote, compared to Bush's 53 percent. Indeed, if you put the two elections of the Reagan era together, we find Reagan averaging 54.8 percent of the popular vote with a fourteen-point victory margin and 94 percent of the electoral vote, compared to Bush's average of 49.4 of the popular vote, a 1.1-point victory margin and 52 percent of the electoral vote.
Quite a difference and, as Brownstein emphasizes, essentially no cushion against incumbent party third term slippage.
It's also fascinating to compare that 1984 GOP high water mark to the current one in terms of how the GOP is faring in different types of counties. Take, for example, those one hundred fastest-growing counties (since 2000) where Bush did so well in 2004. I've pointed out the less-than-earthshaking nature of this trend elsewhere (see above). But it's interesting to note that in those very same counties in 1984, Reagan did even better : he carried them by 36 points, compared to Bush's 25 point victory this year.
Or, if you prefer, take the one hundred fastest-growing counties from the 1990s: Bush carried them by 27 points this year; Reagan carried them by 38 points in 1984.
Another interesting point of comparison is to look at large metropolitan areas. In the exurban or fringe counties of these areas, Bush beat Kerry by 24 points – but Reagan beat Mondale in these same counties by 29 points. So even in this area of particular strength for Bush, he still lagged somewhat behind Reagan's 1984 performance.
And Bush lagged way, way behind Reagan in the most consequential part of large metro areas, their central counties. Reagan carried these counties by eleven points in 1984, while Bush lost them by an identical margin this year. That's a huge anti-Republican swing of twenty-two points in a group of counties that are much more consequential than exurbia to GOP electoral fortunes. In the 2004 election, these central counties still cast 43 percent of the overall vote, compared to just five percent for the exurban counties.
Yet another way to look at the Bush 2004/Reagan 1984 comparison is to compare Bush's strength in his best areas – rural and exurban counties combined – with Reagan in the same counties in 1984. That comparison shows that Bush carried these counties by a healthy 21 points (60 percent to 39 percent) this year – but Reagan did even better in 1984, carrying them by a 25-point margin (62 percent to 37 percent).
Moreover, despite the fact that exurban areas have been growing fairly rapidly, they start from a small enough base that their share of all U.S. voters has increased only modestly over the last 20 years. In fact, once you combine these exurban areas with the rural areas, which have been declining slightly, the share of the U.S. vote cast by the combined group of counties has held rock steady at 25 percent between 1984 and 2004.
In short, when you compare the Bush era to the Reagan era, even Bush's strongest areas don't look so strong and there's less real growth going on in his coalition than generally supposed. If this is a contemporary high water mark for the GOP – and there are good historical reasons for supposing it is – they could be in real trouble.
The new CBS News/New York Times poll suggests that, as indicated by the postelection Democracy Corps poll I discussed last week, Bush doesn't have much of a mandate for his policies and is unlikely to enjoy much of a honeymoon from a public that preferred him only marginally to John Kerry.
Bush's overall approval rating in the poll is 51 percent and more people think the country is off on the wrong track (54 percent) than feel it is going in the right direction (40 percent). That's a net of -14 on wrong track, actually slightly worse than recorded by CBS right before the election.
Bush's approval ratings in specific areas, except for the campaign on terrorism, are all lower now than they were right before the election: 44 percent approval/48 percent disapproval on handling foreign policy, 42 percent/57 percent on the economy, and 40 percent/55 percent on the situation in Iraq. On the campaign against terrorism, however, his rating is 59 percent/37 percent, up four points since before the election.
The poll also finds more of the public uneasy (51 percent) than confident (47 percent) in Bush's ability to "deal wisely with a difficult international crisis" and with his ability to "make the right decisions about the nation's economy" (52 percent/46 percent).
On Social Security, by 51 percent to 38 percent, the public thinks that Bush is not likely to make sure Social Security benefits are there for "people like you." Also, they don't believe, by 51 percent to 31 percent, that the Social Security system will be able to provide the proper level of benefits for them when they retire. However, the public is split on whether it would be a good idea (49 percent) or bad idea (45 percent) to let individuals invest part of their Social Security taxes on their own – Bush's signature proposal in this area.
On corporate influence, two-thirds (66 percent) think that large corporations have too much influence on the Bush administration, compared to just 19 percent who think that corporations have the right amount of influence and four percent who think that they have too little(!).
On taxes, less than a third (32 percent) think that Bush's tax cuts since 2001 have been good for the economy (64 percent think that they've been bad or made or made no difference) and only 31 percent think that additional reductions in taxes (another signature Bush proposal) would be good for the economy (62 percent think that such reductions would be bad or make no difference). And, on the question of whether the temporary tax cuts passed in 2001 should be allowed to expire, more say that they should expire (45 percent) than say they shouldn't (41 percent).
On budget priorities, by more than two to one (67 percent to 28 percent), the public thinks that reducing the federal budget deficit should be a higher priority than cutting taxes. (No question was asked about spending on health care and so on, versus cutting taxes, but that result would likely be even more lop-sided.)
On Iraq, for the first time since July, more say we should have stayed out of Iraq (48 percent) than say we did the right thing to take military action against Iraq (46 percent). Also, for the very first time, an outright majority (51 percent) says that the war in Iraq is separate from the war on terrorism (up nine points since right before the election). Of those who say the war in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism (43 percent), 34 percent say that it is a major part and the other nine percent say it is a minor part. Finally, a plurality (46 percent to 45 percent) now say that it is not possible for the United States to create a stable democracy in Iraq.
On the political parties, despite the Republicans' gains in the 2004 election, the public now views the Democrats substantially more favorably (54 percent favorable/39 percent unfavorable) than they view the Republicans (49 percent/46 percent).
And as for that parity in party identification indicated by the National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll? It's already gone, if it was really there to begin with. Confirming the Annenberg Election Survey results I wrote about last week, the CBS/New York Times poll now shows the Democrats with a seven-point lead on party identification (36 percent to 29 percent).
Source Used for this section:
CBS News/New York Times poll of 885 adults, released November 23, 2004 (conducted November 18-21, 2004)
How important were the fast-growing counties to Bush's victory? Very important – cosmically important! – if we are to believe the analysis in Monday's Los Angeles Times story by Ron Brownstein and Richard Rainey. The story, breathlessly entitled GOP Plants Flag on New Voting Frontier: Bush's Huge Victory in the Fast-Growing Areas Beyond the Suburbs Alters the Political Map" makes the situation sound dire indeed for the Democrats. Bush rode a tidal wave of GOP votes in these counties to victory and, since these counties are so fast-growing, things will only get worse !
Does the analysis in the Brownstein/Rainey article justify the somewhat extravagant claims made for the importance of these counties? I don't think so. Start with exhibit number one in the article: Bush carried the one-hundred fastest-growing counties (defined as those that grew the fastest between April 2000 and July 2003) by 1.7 million votes this year. That sounds impressive, especially since the article points out that those votes are "almost half the president's total margin of victory."
But isn't the most relevant measure for understanding Bush's victory how much Bush improved his performance in different areas relative to 2000? It is these improvements in Bush's vote margins in various areas of the country that are responsible for taking him from a half-million vote deficit in 2000 to a roughly 3.4 million vote advantage this election.
In that light, how does Bush's performance in these fast-growing counties stack up? Not so different from what I found the other day when I analyzed the role of exurbs in Bush's 2004 victory. In that analysis, I found that exurbs, defined as fringe counties of large metropolitan areas, contributed about 13 percent of Bush's net vote gain between 2000 and 2004.
In the fast-growing counties, as Brownstein/Rainey point out, Bush's vote margin in 2000 was 1.06 million votes, so his improvement or net vote gain in these counties was a more modest 660,000 votes. That, in turn, works out to a contribution of about 17 percent to Bush's total net vote gain in the country. That's good, but it's hardly overwhelming.
And actually not very different from – and in some cases less than – the contributions of other "top one hundred" groups of counties that don't have that exciting fast-growth label. Take the top 100 counties in terms of amount – not rate – of population growth. My analysis shows that these counties contributed 21 percent of Bush's total increase in vote margin. Or how about the top one hundred counties in terms of population size today: Kerry still carried these counties by an overwhelming margin (5.9 million votes) but Bush cut his deficit enough in these counties that they still contributed about 15 percent of Bush's total net vote gains – just about as much as those sexy, fast-growing counties contributed.
And no matter which of these top one hundred county categories you look at, the overwhelming amount of Bush's gains still occur outside those county categories. Boringly enough, it looks like Bush's narrow victory was mostly attributable to modest, but broad-based, gains across the country, not to any particular flavor of county, as enticing as that storyline obviously is to journalists.
How broad-based? If you look at percentage point margins, Bush improved his margin by four points in the 100 fastest-growing counties – and by three points outside those counties. And he improved his margin by three points in the one hundred largest-growth counties and by two points in the one hundred counties with the largest populations.
It's fun to talk about exurbs and fast growth, but "huge victory" and "altering the political map" – please. In the end it was "two to four points and a cloud of dust." That was the reall2004 election.