Back in 1976, when, after a divisive contest for the Republican nomination, President Ford addressed GOP delegates at the party’s convention in Kansas City, he challenged his Democratic rival, to a series of debates. He hoped such a bold (and novel at that time) strategy would overcome his deficit in the polls.
At one point, that Democrat, Jimmy Carter, led the incumbent Republican in the polls by a such a margin that if undecided vote were decided evenly between candidates, Carter would have defeated Ford by a 2-to-1 margin, eclipsing the popular vote landslides of Nixon in 1972 and FDR in 1936.
Through those debates, Ford hoped to define the the relatively untested former Georgia governor and so show his unfitness (demonstrated by later events) for the White House. Carter had succeeded in winning the Democratic nomination based largely on his charm, his status as a political outsider, his promise of change, and his smile (which seems to have disappeared in recent years).
Carter in 1976 seems a lot like Barack Obama in 2008, a candidate who moved from political obscurity to Democratic presidential frontrunner in an amazingly short amount of time. Indeed, Rich Lowry made this very comparison in a National Review piece back in December (full article available by subscription only). Similarly to the Illinois Senator, the then-former Georgia governor ran on a “theme of hope and change,” attempted a “a trans-ideological appeal” and presented himself as a “non-politician” politician.
Both men rode high in the polls until their opponents started defining them. Obama is certainly making it easier for Mrs. Clinton and Senator McCain to define him as a politician not yet ready to lead. Presidential timber he may be, but this tree needs a little more time growing before he is ready for harvest.
Ford’s loss leads many to overlook one of the salient features on the 1976 race for the White House; his was one of the best-run losing campaigns in the history of U.S. presidential elections. He went from being down by 33 points at one point to losing by only 2. In Ohio, the margin was a mere 11,000 votes (107,000 fewer than Bush’s margin in 2004).
The Republican president made up that margin, largely due to his ability to define Carter in the fall campaign. Had it not been for his gaffe in the second presidential debate (saying “There is No Soviet Domination of Eastern Europe“), he may well have won.
Ford’s narrow loss is instructive in this year’s contest. 1976 should have been a banner year for the Democrats. The economy was in the tank (far more so than it is now) and memories of Watergate were still fresh — and relevant to the campaign, given Ford’s pardon of Nixon. This year, as Victor Davis Hanson writes, citing an array of problems for which the president (rightly or wrongly) gets the blame, by “any standard measure, Democrats should win the November election by a landslide.” But, like Ford in the last day’s of the 1976 race, John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee this year, is running even in most polls with either of his potential Democratic rivals:
he should be polling 10-15 points behind. Why, then, is McCain doing so well? Much of the answer is the Obama-Clinton cat-fighting; but Obama has also shown an inability to come clean the first time after an embarrassing disclosure or gaffe. By now the public expects instead that more of his serial half-truths will follow ad nauseam.
Perhaps because of changes in the media has it now become easier to define candidates for the White House. And such definitions have helped keep Mrs. Clinton’s negatives high while raising questions about Obama.
Because of that, McCain won’t be able to gain 31 points on the likely Democratic nominee in the fall campaign, but it does suggest that Obama may not be able to withstand the rigors of the fall campign. The more people know about him, the less confidence they have in his ability to lead the nation.
Finally, it’s going to be hard for the Democrats to redefine John McCain, given not only his long Senate career, but his long leadership role in that body. He is not an unknown quality. As a recent Gallup survey showed (and other surveys have confirmed) he has very high favorables. It’s going to be hard for one political campaign to move those numbers.
Unlike 1976, when people, iike today, were ready for changes after eight years of one party in the White House, John McCain is not the incumbent. Which all suggests that, with a good campaign this fall, relentlessly reminding voters of his opponent’s unfitness for executive leadership, things are looking good for the GOP nominee, provided he doesn’t get too cocky.