Is it 1964 all over again?

It’s a couple of weeks since we looked at the United States political scene – back when the last group of states held their primaries. Since then, the tone of media coverage has shifted quite dramatically.

At the beginning of the month, Donald Trump was riding high. He had the Republican nomination locked up at a time when Hillary Clinton was still collecting the delegates that she needed, and the media were coming to terms with the idea of treating him as a serious presidential candidate. As often happens, they overshot the mark, giving him unmerited credibility, and the polls showed him almost drawing level with Clinton. (Although as between media and polls, it’s impossible to distinguish cause and effect.)

Since then, public and media alike have come to their senses a bit, and Trump’s poll numbers have nosedived. The latest RealClearPolitics average has Clinton 5.8 percentage points ahead; that’s still not very much (in March her lead was in double figures, and last year it was 20 points), but the trend is unmistakable. And the wheels seem to be falling off the Trump campaign, with the sacking of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and a stream of stories about the lack of money, strategy and political nous.

So those who were recently writing pieces with titles like “Why Trump will win” are now looking rather foolish. The media’s tone this week is epitomised more by a story in the New Republic, “Donald Trump Will Be Buried in an Electoral Avalanche.”

Of course, Trump isn’t actually the nominee yet. It’s still possible that the Republican Party will organise itself to stage a revolt at the Convention next month and allow another candidate to emerge. But on past form that’s extremely unlikely, and even if it did happen the resulting warfare would probably doom its electoral prospects anyway – for all the good that it might do for the party’s soul.

My view is that a lot of people’s expectations for November are being led astray by recent experience, in which elections have generally been close. Of the last seven elections, not one has strayed beyond the margin of 55%-45%; the most decisive victory was Bill Clinton’s 54.7% in 1996.* But historically, that situation is very unusual.

In the previous seven elections, there were no moderately decisive victories at all. Three were extremely close (1960, 1968 and 1976), but the other four were all landslides. Ronald Reagan won with 55.3% of the two-party vote and was re-elected with 59.2%; Richard Nixon was re-elected in 1972 with 61.8%; and in the one big Democrat victory, Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in 1964 with 61.5%. Johnson carried all but six of the 50 states.

Conventional wisdom discounts the possibility of such a thing happening again. And it’s true that voting behavior in the last generation or so has become much more partisan, and therefore more predictable. Party loyalty matters more than it used to, and personal assessment of a candidate matters correspondingly less.

On the other hand, by any objective test, Trump is a much worse candidate than Goldwater. Goldwater was an experienced and respected senator; Trump has never held public office. Goldwater faced considerable internal opposition, but not on anything like the scale we have seen with Trump. And nothing in 1964 matched the disarray in the Trump campaign.

In 2012, Mitt Romney carried 24 states, with 206 electoral votes. If Clinton can match Johnson’s popular vote, then on a uniform swing she will pick up half of those states, including the three biggest (Texas, Georgia and North Carolina). Such a result would also give the Democrats control of the Senate and probably the House of Representatives.

This election has already confounded a lot of expert opinion, and I realise that I’m risking looking very silly indeed in four and half months time. But to me, this looks much more like 1964 than like the most recent 30 years: I think we’re headed very much into landslide territory. So keep watching.

 

* Note: I’m expressing all figures in two-party terms, factoring out independent and third-party votes. Since there are no preferences in the American system, votes cast for candidates other than those of the major parties are conceptually the same as informals or abstentions.

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