U.S. Presidential Elections: So Much for the Conventional Wisdom

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

April 19, 2008

This piece was also published by Suddeutsche Zeitung on May 2.  View the PDF » (German)

If this most extraordinary US presidential election campaign has left you confused, join the club. Even some of Washington’s most experienced pundits have been repeatedly wrong, and much of the conventional wisdom about US politics has been shattered. Here are six key assumptions going into this race that need to be reconsidered:

1. “Momentum creates winners”. For years we’ve come to believe that once a candidate picks up steam in early primaries like Iowa or New Hampshire he cannot be stopped. But the momentum theory no longer holds. On the Republican side Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Mitt Romney all traded early, often decisive, victories before McCain – whose campaign was considered dead last August – finally emerged on top. The Democrats have done even more to explode the momentum myth. Hillary Clinton recovered from a third-place finish in Iowa to win New Hampshire, Obama recovered from that disappointment with a huge win in South Carolina, and Hillary again emerged from the dead by winning Ohio and Texas in March after losing 11 straight primaries in February.

2. “You can’t beat early money”. Political experts went into this electoral season assuming that an early “war chest” would be the key to success. Especially with a compressed primary season, opponents of candidates with cash would not have access to the funds they needed to wage a national campaign. It hasn’t worked out that way. Among Republicans, Mitt Romney’s vast personal fortune was not enough to stop John McCain – who was essentially broke over the summer – or even Mike Huckabee, who outlasted him in the race. Among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s years of preparation, rich friends, political machine, and fundraising head start could not stop Barack Obama from using the Internet to tap into hundreds of thousands of small donors to finance a national campaign.

3. “Endorsements matter”. Throughout the campaign candidates devote time and resources to winning endorsements by major newspapers, political colleagues, and Hollywood stars. But this year’s primaries should lead us to wonder why. Just to take a few of many examples, the Des Moines Register’s coveted endorsements went to McCain and Clinton – and the caucuses went to Huckabee and Obama. The Boston Globe gave Obama the nod – but the voters in Massachusetts went with Clinton. Obama scored with the Los Angeles Times – but Hillary took California. The biggest of individual endorsements – such as Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Bill Richardson backing Obama – probably do make some difference. But ultimately voters make up their own minds.

4. “Senators can’t get elected president”. As numerous observers have pointed out, no sitting senator has been elected to the White House since John F Kennedy some 48 years ago, despite dozens having tried. The usual explanation is that senators lack the executive expertise of governors, and that their accumulation of votes on complex legislative issues leaves them vulnerable to damaging attacks on their voting records.There is no doubt something to this, but this year’s primary season shows that the obstacle of senatorial service is not insurmountable. Barring a real surprise, the next president will be a US senator.

5.“Democrats are beyond identity politics”.The Democratic Party prides itself on inclusiveness and dreams of a world in which individuals are judged by their character and not by gender or colour. The historic emergence of a female and an African-American as the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination seemed to suggest that the party was moving toward this ideal. But it didn’t. While Obama has done remarkably well among all segments of the party, Clinton has won more than 60 percent of the female vote and 60 percent of the Latino vote, while Obama won more than 80 percent of the African- American vote. It is no small irony that the first candidate to genuinely downplay race in the campaign is also the first to benefit so enormously from a racial bloc.

6. “This is no way to pick a president.” The American primary process is certainly Byzantine, opaque, costly, wasteful, unjust, and mind-numbingly long.Yet for all its obvious downsides, the process provides an unparalleled vetting mechanism for the most difficult job in the world. It tests candidates’ stamina, temperament, breadth of appeal, and resolve in ways that no other process conceivably could. Perhaps it deters some good people from entering the race on the grounds that no “sane” person would want to do this, but does that observation not apply to the job of the presidency itself? In the end, out of a vast field of candidates, we ended up with an experienced American war hero, a whip-smart female senator, and a hugely inspiring African-American who would make his country proud. Can the system be that bad?