As the election season that culminated in the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was getting underway, a lot of pundits started talking about which historical election 2008 would most closely resemble. (This was before the financial meltdown that would occur about a month before the actual vote.) Widespread dissatisfaction with the party in the White House led most people to compare it — with a moderate degree of accuracy — to 1968.
In hindsight, we can argue that two separate elections of the twentieth century can be described as “the incumbent president sailed to an easy re-election by campaigning on a platform that he had kept us out of rapidly escalating European Wars, despite repeated requests for help from our allies. Under the lens of history, barely a year passed between that re-election and our entrance into those wars.” I’m talking, of course, about the elections of 1916 and 1940.
So even though each election is certainly unique and has things that defy conventional wisdom (as illustrated beautifully by this XKCD comic strip from four years ago, even though the item for 1984 is questionable at best. (Reagan wrote with his right hand; there are plausible stories that speak of how, as a child, he was left-handed but forced to write right-handed, but they’re far from definitive.)
So, as the campaigns are starting to gear up, it’s fair to ask the question of which historical election year 2016 will most closely resemble.
Since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, 2016 will mark the fifth time that an incumbent president will be constitutionally ineligible to seek re-election. (The previous four were 1960, 1988, 2000, and 2008.) I don’t want to delve too much into the implications and nuances of the 22nd Amendment, it’s probably fair to say that, without the 22nd Amendment, the incumbent president in three of those four past years, was popular enough to win again had he been legally permitted to do so. (George W Bush would not have had a chance at re-election in 2008. Eisenhower in ’60, Reagan in ’88, and Clinton and ’00 probably could have at least put up strong campaigns.)
I say this not to make any arguments about the merits or demerits of the 22nd Amendment but instead to call a parallel to Obama’s recent off-the-cuff statement that Obama probably could be re-elected again if he were constitutionally eligible. I agree, considering the state of the electorate. Indeed, he probably would stand a better chance at it than any of his four constitutionally ineligible predecessors if for no other reason than the relative lack of political scandals at comparable points in their presidencies.
But the 22nd Amendment has had an influence on the way second-term presidents have governed. Even though there were only four elections prior to the 22nd Amendment in which a sitting or former president sought a third term (1880, 1916, 1940, and 1944), second terms of presidents unencumbered by the constitution governed differently from second terms any more.
It’s therefore fair to say, at least at this stage, that 2016 will resemble one of the previous elections where the president was constitutionally ineligible.
And I think we can immediately factor out 2008 as the comparable election, for reasons mentioned above.
This comparison should center on the candidates for both parties. In 2016, there are a small number of candidates seeking the nomination of the party that currently holds the White House, although one candidate is clearly favored by the party establishment over the others. In this regard, 2016 could resemble 1988 or 2000. (While technically true in 1960, too, Nixon’s nomination as the Republican candidate for the presidency was less certain than Bush’s in 1988 or Gore’s in 2000.) Despite the numbers of people showing up to Bernie Sanders rallies now, it’s pretty clear that the Democratic nomination will go to Hilary Clinton unless she completely self-destructs. (Nothing against, Sanders, or Martin O’Malley, or Lincoln Chafee, or Jim Webb.)
But what of the party not in the White House. There are seventeen plausible candidates (and counting) seeking the Republican nomination. And although the odds are that within the next couple of months, several of them will drop out for money reasons. (If you were wondering who I think will be first, I’d bet on Rick Perry…) This is a field so large, the first debate had to be split into two smaller groups based upon polling numbers.
Side note: Rick Santorum isn’t wrong for criticizing the process by which the groups were divided, especially since he got the proverbial short end of the stick, I would like to know how he would propose doing the debates, considering that having all seventeen candidates on the stage at once is a logistical nightmare, if not an outright impossibility.
When you look at the vast number of candidates, I’m reminded of a political cartoon from 1988, which posited that all of the Democratic candidates could stand side-by-side humming the national anthem and completely overpower Vice President George H. W. Bush.
There were a few democrats in ’88 whose candidacies created media circuses (Gary Hart comes to mind), not unlike Donald Trump today, but there were a boatload of them with no clear front runner (Donald Trump won’t be the GOP nominee) and a damaging primary season ahead.
So that’s my prediction. I realize that it’s nearly six months before the first caucuses and primaries and a lot can change between now and then, but I think it’s fair to say that if we want to look to a historical precedent, then 2016 will most closely resemble 1988.