The first Presidential election that I remember was 1960. My sister explained that we were for Kennedy because he was better looking than Nixon. She was old enough to know the way the world works, for I was about 5 and she was in high school. I never gave elections another thought until 1964 came along and I was told that Barry Goldwater would cause a depression and we would all have to go to the poorhouse. I became a dedicated supporter of Lyndon Johnson at that point.
It was during this time, circa 1964, that I acquired a small booklet on the Presidents. It was published and distributed by Enco, which was a gas and oil company, and was given out as a token gift. I don’t remember who gave it to me, but I pored over it off and on for years. (I just recently rediscovered it in my file cabinet.)
As the years went by, I always paid a fair amount of attention to Presidential elections. By 1972, I became deeply interested. By the time I went through college, I had formed a pretty deep interest as a history major in politics, elections, and government at the Presidential level. Typical of me, I have never been really involved in any political campaigns, have only visited Washington, D. C. once, and have never seriously imagined running for office.
Have I read 100 plus books on different political leaders, elections, political issues, etc.? Certainly, and I have also watched news reports, documentaries, movie accounts, and other politically related media presentations. I like to think that I am something of an authority, although I have no official credentials to back up that assertion.
The 2020 Presidential election, which happened over 2 months ago now, will go down in history as one of the most volatile and disputed elections of all time. I reject the contention that it was the most important election of our lifetimes, but would claim that for now, it is the most controversial. Weighing in on this election, therefore, is a serious matter for several reasons.
- The post election drama and controversy exceeds even the drama and controversy leading up to the election.
- The results are never going to be accepted by the vast majority of those who participated in it.
- The two candidates were the two most improbable of candidates. I am sympathetic with the notion that they were the two worst candidates in our history. Without debate, they were the oldest two.
- The 2020 election is not going to fold up its tent and go away. The controversies surrounding and resulting from this year will be with us throughout 2021, all through the 2022 mid-term elections, and then revving up again in 2024.
In the course of this post, I want to say a few things about the election as a student of history. I am going to try, try, try to avoid partisan answers and repeating the now wearisome political commentaries that have been hashed and rehashed for three months.
First, as stated above, for the mere student of history, studying the 2016 and 2020 elections will be quite enjoyable, shocking, and unusual. Many U.S. Presidential elections are rather predictable, explainable, and uneventful. One side wins, and the other loses. Often, the results can be predicted for months in advance. Especially if an incumbent President is running for re-election, he is going to win, barring economic troubles. In the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, incumbents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt (3 times), Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama won. Incumbents Taft, Hoover, Ford, Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Trump lost. A party split cost Taft re-election, and economic issues cost the other five.
Normally, elections have pitted governors, senators, and Vice Presidents against each other. The only exceptions have been 1916 when Republican Charles Evan Hughes was a Supreme Court Justice (the only time such a person ran), 1940, when Wendell Wilkie was a businessman, and in 1952 and 1956, Eisenhower was a military leader.
Normally, elections can be remembered for one tag or defining sentence. 1940 was the third term victory run for Roosevelt. 1960 was the first time a Catholic was elected President. 1964 was a landslide a year after Kennedy’s assassination. 1968 was a year of a strong third party movement (as were 1912, 1924, 1948, 1992, and 1996) and much civil unrest. 1976 was the first unelected Vice President who became the first unelected President following the resignation of a President. 1980 was the election of a former actor. 2000 was a disputed election due to the Florida returns and the first election of a son of a President since 1824. 2008 was the first election of an African-American.
But 2016 and 2020 were elections that will merit several tags. Note that I am tying these two elections together. They were, in some respects, the same election held two years apart. The Democrats went against their own tradition and nominated candidates who had already been in Presidential politics previously. Usually the party would opt for a new, fresh face, such as it did in 1912, 1932, 1960, 1972, 1976, 1988, 1992, and 2008, while the Republicans nominated the man who had paid his dues, as in 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2008, and 2012.
And in both ’16 and ’20, the Democrats opted for an older (meaning old!) candidate. Hillary Clinton was almost 70 when she ran, and President Biden is 78.
The wildest part of the ride was the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump in 2016. It had the most ethnically diverse and talented group of men and women running for the nomination that year. And the party of conservatism, the home of the religious right, and the party of the old-line Republican establishment went out of bounds and nominated a man of little or no past political experience or affiliation, a multi-billionaire with wealth stemming from running gambling casinos, a man aged 70 with a third trophy wife nearly 30 years his junior, and a complete novice on politics as usual.
To understand the ’16 and ’20 elections, just realize that the Democrats simply reversed their ticket. Four years ago, they had a sharp, but unwinsome woman at the head of the ticket with a more moderate, passive man as Vice President. This gave them the tag of having a woman at the head of the ticket. It failed. So, they put the more moderate and passive man at the head of the ticket with the more controversial and edgy woman in the VP slot.
The Biden-Harris ticket worked as the mirror image of the Clinton-Kaine ticket. It was somewhat like the German Manstein Plan in 1940 that reversed the direction of the Schlieffen Plan from 1914. And in both cases, failure was changed to success. The Democrats were able to say, in effect, “We have a woman on the ticket and we have a safe, predictable man on the ticket.” Keep in mind that candidates like Bernie Sanders (an unapologetic socialist), or Pete Buttigieg, or Michael Bloomberg all carried too much baggage or too little experience.
President Trump, to follow up on my ’16 and ’20 connection, ran a campaign exactly like the one he had four years earlier. But no two campaigns have all the same dynamics for a candidate. Ronald Reagan backed off of his compelling “Keep the Panama Canal” issue from 1976 when he successfully got the nomination and Presidency in 1980. Trump rallied his base, perhaps as well as any other candidate ever has, but he failed to expand his base in areas where he needed to.
To win in 2020, President Trump needed to win over a block of voters who would be willing to hold their noses and vote for him. They would never wear MAGA hats, never attend rallies, or put up yard signs, but they would have cast their middle -to-upper middle-class votes in their suburban voting precincts for the Republicans. There should have been pictures of Trump and Bush 43 together on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney should have been supporting the President (for he certainly didn’t reject Trump’s endorsement in 2012), and the McCain-Flake base in Arizona should have voted, however reluctantly, for the President.
President Trump won 46.5 percent of the vote in 2016. That means that one of the central focuses of the Trump White House should have been expanding that base to 50.1 percent or more. That would have meant fewer or NO tweets, especially those that posited unverified claims, cruel insults, bad grammar and spelling, and needless controversies. President Trump needed a fulltime advisor whose main task would have been to explain how Ronald Reagan would react.
Draining the swamp rhetoric didn’t expand the electorate, especially when everyone was wanting the swamp stimulus checks. “You have been here for 47 years and didn’t do these things” didn’t convince anyone who never noticed that Biden had been to Washington. “Lock him up,” referring to Hunter Biden didn’t resonate and wasn’t reported. The bull in the China shop debate tactics didn’t expand the base by any votes during the first debate.
For all of the talk that Donald Trump was not a politician, he was, but he failed. When you enter a political race, give speeches, shake hands, hold rallies, make promises, and win a political office, you are a politician. Although that word has many negative connotations, a politician has to possess a set of skills that differ from other professions. Like Reagan, a man with an acting background can use those skills to enhance political skills. Like Eisenhower, a man used to military matters can use those skills to transition to politics.
Anyone, meaning EVERYONE, remotely interested in politics either as a subject of study or as a profession must, as in MUST, read and master Robert Caro’s third volume of his multi-volume study of Lyndon Johnson. Master of the Senate completely revamped my whole way of thinking about politics. It doesn’t matter what you think of Johnson the man, he was able to figure out how the Senate worked. Successful politicians follow similar trajectories, those who failed, like Hoover, Carter, and Trump, didn’t.
There is one other result of the 2020 election that I want to mention. I have not come across anyone else dealing with this issue. There has been lots of talk about how President Trump did better among Hispanic and African-American voters than any other Republican candidate since 1960. While Democrats were celebrating winning the Presidency, there have to be some Democrat political operatives who are sweating bullets about what the possibilities are if the Republicans increase, even marginally, these minority gains.
But there is also this feature to the 2020 election: The electoral map has changed. Even though most of those changes either helped the Democrats or reverted back to the Democrats, this underlying groundswell is significant. Some formerly Red (Republican) states are now no longer safe. Georgia and Arizona flipped. Texas was under assault, but it remained Republican. Ohio, Florida, and Iowa, where previous winners there were winners overall, went solidly for Trump in a close election year. (Many traditional election patterns changed in 2020.) But Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada are now all purple states. Yes, they ended up in the Blue column (and do you own work on the voting fraud issues), but they were close, and three of the larger states went for Trump in 2016. There is no longer the Big Blue Wall of the Midwest. The Midwest is up for grabs.
I am surprised that neither Minnesota nor New Hampshire were close. I am surprised that Republicans were so massively outspent. Why President Trump didn’t toss $500 million of his own supposed wealth into the campaign is a mystery. I have not exhausted all of my thoughts on the election, but I have likely exhausted my ever shrinking fan base.
Time to think again about literary classics and theology rather than politics.