Monday, September 15, 2008

Should Obama be doing better?

I've had a back-and-forth over email with a friend who feels that this election is much closer than it should be, that a generic Democrat would be doing better than Obama. To be fair, he isn't necessarily blaming Obama, but merely pointing out that [insert blandly acceptable older white man (D)] and the polls wouldn't be close, that is how bad the Republican brand is right now.

Maybe I just reflexively defend Obama, but something about this assertion doesn't seem right to me. First, for right or wrong, McCain has his own brand-name in this country, separate from the Republican party. People who can't tell you what McCain thinks about any given issue will be able to tell you that Bush and McCain haven't gotten along in the past (hey, didn't they run against each other at one point?) which certainly helps McCain distance himself from Bush. Of course, McCain is not offering an policies substantively different from Bush, but we're talking low-info voters here.

But McCain aside, this country just does not vote blow-outs. In 6 of the past 8 elections, the winner received less than 51% of the popular vote, and only Reagan as an incumbent topped 55%. Here are the winning percentages going back to 1896, with sitting presidents in red:

Of course, there was a significant third party presence in some of those elections, but so what? To me, that just furthers the point that no one man or party can appeal to a wide majority of Americans, especially in the heated back-and-forth of an election, and when people feel like neither of the main candidates are speaking to their needs, third parties pop up.

Pretty much the only way to top 60% is to be a sitting president (the one black bar that is above 60% is Harding... so maybe we should hope that Obama doesn't win in a blow out!)

Perhaps America is too geographically, ethnically, spiritually, etc. diverse for one person to appeal to 60% of voters. Perhaps the increasing fragmentation of the media makes it harder to win with a single narrative (Tippecanoe and Tyler too!) Perhaps in a small sample size of 8 elections, we really can't draw any conclusions about how America may or may not have changed over the past 30 years. I don't know if I buy any of those explanations, I mean, I don't have any data to analyze, and some are pretty much non-testable hypotheses. But to say that Obama should be killing McCain right now, well, I just can't see that.

Hmm, while writing this, which was more-or-less the next 'forth' in the back and forth email exchange, I just received a 'back'.... in the interest of transparency, I'll post this, read and post the email, and reply.