Is it 1976 or 1980?

Which election year most resembles this election? It depends on who you choose to believe.

Michael Barone, who, for the most part, I consider one of the more astute political observers, thinks this is pretty darn close to what happened in 1976:

Looking back over the last 40 years, the presidential campaign that most closely resembles this year’s is the contest between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976. The Republicans were the incumbent presidential party that year, as they are now, but the Democrats had a big advantage in party identification — on the order of 49 percent to 26 percent then, far more than today.

The Republican president who had been elected and re-elected in the last two campaigns, Richard Nixon, had dismal favorability ratings, far lower than George W. Bush’s. His name could scarcely be mentioned at the Republican National Convention. The Democratic nominee was a little-known outsider, with an appeal that was based on the idea that he could transcend the nation’s racial divisions. Jimmy Carter, a governor from the Deep South, had placed a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the state Capitol in Atlanta.

Barone goes on to point out further similarities, but to also say that while the situation is very much the same, the numbers – which are really Barone’s forte – don’t line up as badly for the Reps this time (July) as they did in ’76. And he further notes that by November the numbers had narrowed up and Ford lost by 2 points (50 – 48) mostly, I’m convinced, due to a couple of tumbles down the stairs and the pardon of Nixon.

That’s not to say the Reps should take heart and that everything will work out in McCain’s favor by November. I have full confidence that McCain or his campaign can find a way to blow any advantage they might accrue.

However Barone thinks it may not be as bleak as the right may think.

Trailing 62 to 29 in the summer, Ford managed to close the gap enough that it was a very small number of votes, and two states, that put Carter in the White House:

Yet by November, the race was about even. Ford ended up losing by just 50 percent to 48 percent. A switch of 5,559 votes in Ohio and 3,687 in Hawaii — 9,247 votes out of 81 million — would have made Ford president for four more years.

But of course it didn’t and you at least know the history of what we suffered with Carter.

Barone tells the story of how the Ford campaign almost overcame the numbers, and it’s an interesting story. It might behoove the McCain campaign to consider something similar in the coming months.

However, wandering around the net and reading various articles, I stumbled across Clive Crook’s examination of exactly the phenomenon Michael Barone examined.

Crook, however, has a completely different analysis based on the work of Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz and his electoral barometer.

The point to be made about the good professor’s electoral barometer is it that has a good track record, much better than the polls. And, as Crook succinctly sums up Abramowitz’s findings about this election, “McCain is toast”.

Essentially the message Crook and Abramowitz give is that the polls that show the candidates in a very tight race don’t really matter because they’re polling the wrong things.

Abramowitz’s electoral barometer weighs together the approval rating of the incumbent president, the economy’s economic growth rate and whether the president’s party has controlled the White House for two terms (the “time for a change” factor). That’s it. That’s all. And he weights them as his research indicates these factors should be weighted.

Result?

It has predicted the popular vote winner 14 out of 15 times in post-war elections (it missed on Humphrey in ’68 which isn’t particularly surprising given the convention and the era).

And this election in particular?

The Electoral Barometer, a measure of national political conditions that combines these three factors, currently yields a reading of -62, which is similar to that received by Jimmy Carter prior to his decisive loss to Ronald Reagan.

Yes folks, unlike the Barone analysis which finds conditions analogous to the 1976 Carter/Ford race, Abramowitz finds it much closer to the 1980 Carter/Reagan race – except in this particular case, it is Obama who is the “Reagan” of the race, not the Republican.

Crook comes up with perhaps the most interesting point about this method of prediction:

The unsettling thing about this way of predicting the outcome, of course, is that it does not matter whether the Democratic candidate is Mr Obama or Hillary Clinton – or Joe Biden or Dennis Kucinich, for that matter. The Republicans’ choice of Mr McCain was equally beside the point. On the merits, one candidate may be much better than another – a separate and endlessly interesting question. When it comes to predicting the result, the barometer says that as long as the incumbent is not running, it makes no difference.

While I think his Kucinich claim may be a “bridge too far”, tuck that in the back of your mind and compare it with the results in November. What Crook is arguing is that it really doesn’t matter who is running for which party – if the three conditions are in a certain alignment, a blue dog could run and win. Or a red one.

However, all that being said, there is an “X” factor in this particular race that has never been present before:

Are there special factors that could throw the calculation off? No doubt, and this year one above all cries out. Mr Obama would be the first black president, a possibility the barometer has not yet had to contemplate. Who knows what difference his colour will make, whether it will help him on balance or hurt him.

And, of course, we’ll certainly see how that effects the outcome if at all.

But think about this theory that says that the choice of candidates, their strengths and weaknesses and the way they fight their campaigns (unless they really step on it) has less to do with the outcome than the weighted alignment of three political factors and the seeming inevitability of the outcome they bring to the election. That’s a bit terrifying in reality. But it does offer a reasonable, if not particularly desirable explanation for Carter and Clinton and, perhaps, Obama.

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