Friday, November 7, 2008

Politics: Where is the Pendulum?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The mainstream media are currently engaged in a debate on whether the election of Barack Obama represents the end of a free-market Republican era or simply a short-term backlash to the Bush administration. There's really no way to know for at least four years, and the answer will undoubtedly be more determined by the behavior of the Obama administration and the 111th Congress controlled by the Democrats than the present political climate. That being stated, based on the data we have now, there's every reason to believe that this election represents backlash rather than a fundamental shift in the electorate.

The left is trying to argue, based on the fact that Obama won in virtually every demographic except for rural, white men that this election represents a fundamental shift away from the Republicans. However, that really isn't much of an argument. It is well-known that over time the electorate swings back and forth like a pendulum, and when all demographics move together, it's equally likely that the figurative pendulum is shifting away from an extreme as it is that a fundamental shift is going on.

The environment was certainly ripe for a left-ward shift in the pendulum. I would argue that it was in the best position for a shift toward the Democrats of my entire lifetime. There was an unpopular war, economic collapse, and strong feelings that the Republican Bush administration had at least knowingly misled the public and the Congress, even if it might not be criminal. There hasn't been an anti-Republican feeling of this magnitude since the Watergate era which led to the pendulum swinging left in the 1974 and 1976 elections.

In such a mood, it would seem that the 52% of the vote won by Obama was paltry. However, there were factors working against Obama. He is quite inexperienced compared with many President-Elects, and people may have voted against him for that reason even if they were tired of Republicans. While there was no "Bradley Effect" in the polls, that doesn't mean that some people didn't vote for him because of his race (or should I say races). So, percentage of the popular vote may admittedly not be the best measure of the mood of the populace, contrary to my earlier arguments.

There are other measures available, though. The number of seats won by the Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate could serve that purpose quite well. I have taken the number of seats won by the Democrats (or independents that caucused with the Democrats) and the Republicans (or independents that caucused with the Republicans) in each election since 1952 and plotted them. The horizontal line represents control of the chamber (218 in the case of the House, 51 in the case of the Senate), and the vertical lines are the 1964 election of Lyndon Johnson, the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, and the 2008 election of Barack Obama--in other words, the left-ward shifts of the pendulum. The House Chart appears below; click on it for a clearer view.

The 1964 and 1976 elections were clear high points for the Democrats, with 295 and 292 seats, respectively--defining quite well the extent of a left-ward shift of the pendulum in that era. In contrast, Bill Clinton's coat-tails amounted to only 258 seats in 1992. Since the environment of 1992 was not nearly as anti-Republican as previous shifts, that might not seem to represent a fundamental shift until one looks at 1994, when the Republicans took control of the House for the first time since 1952 and the Democrats fell to 204 seats--a fundamental shift that had started with the Reagan administration had occurred. So how does the 2008 election look? It appears that the Democrats will have about 255 seats--less even than in 1992. If this is as far to the Democrats that the pendulum shifts, this has become a very Republican nation.

The Senate results are quantitatively different, but may actually tell the story more accurately, as seen below:

The 1964 high-water mark had the Democrats with 68 seats. The 1976 shift still gave them a veto-proof majority with 61. However, the Republicans took control in the Reagan era, and the Clinton shift in 1992 was only to 57 seats. There are still races outstanding, but it would appear that the 2008 number will be about equal to the 1992 number. A clear shift occurred in the Reagan era to a pendulum bouncing between about 45 and 57 seats for the Democrats, and it hasn't shifted anywhere yet.

Of course, a case could be made that these are somewhat lagging indicators--the low-water mark for Democrats in the Senate (where only one-third of seats are contested in each election) didn't occur in 1980 but 1982, for example. Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress now have an opportunity to connect with the general population and move the center of the pendulum shift. If they don't, however, the data suggest that the pendulum will shift back toward Republican control, probably right away in 2010.

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