The 2004 presidential election in historical context
Historian William E. Leuchtenburg talks about past presidential elections and how the 2004 election fits or defies precedents.
William Leuchtenburg is William Rand Kenan Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is past president of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. Leuchtenburg has written numerous books on Franklin Roosevelt and on the American presidency, including In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and was a presidential inauguration analyst for PBS, CBS and C-SPAN.
For starters, could you tell me how you got interested in presidential history?
I remember, a little boy of nine, the Democratic national convention of 1932 over the radio. My parents let me stay up late listening. And I had just learned the year before how to keep score on baseball in the World Series and I did the same thing — kept the scores of the delegates of the then forty-eight states with columns for the first, second and third ballots, with the names of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Al Smith, John N. Garner, Governor Ritchie of Maryland, Newton D. Baker, Owen D. Young, all of the candidates, and was fascinated state by state as they called out the numbers. And I still remember particularly the man from New Jersey getting up with a very thick Irish brogue and saying, “New Jersey casts its thirty-two votes for that great American Alfred E. Smith.” So I was hooked.
And, of course, growing up in the age Franklin Roosevelt was very exciting. The following spring, every time I read a newspaper there was a new alphabet agency and in school we were given a blue eagle from the NRA, National Recovery Administration, to bring home and paste in the window. So it was very easy to get caught up in presidential history.
Why do you think presidential history matters for students today?
Well, I think that if you look closely at this campaign, there are three main issues, as I’ll be saying in a magazine piece — national security, family values, and the economy. And each of these three issues has a very long historical background to it.
The national security issue goes back to the Republican claim in the years after the Civil War that the Democrats were a party of disloyalty or even treason for their sympathy with the Confederacy, whereas the Republicans claimed that they were the country’s only truly legitimate party — the party of the union, the Grand Old Party, the GOP. And that theme continues from the attacks on the Democrat Copperhead Clement Vallandigham in the 1860s right on to Alger Hiss in the 1950s.
During the period of the Cold War, the Republicans charged that the Democrats were soft on communism and now they are saying that Senator Kerry is soft on terrorism. So that issue of national security, although it’s had, obviously, more intense focus since 9/11, is something that goes back several generations — the Republicans claiming that they’re the party of national security and the Democrats are the party of weakness. And that’s part of what Kerry has to overcome and that Bush is exploiting in this campaign. And the same is true for family values and the economy and at any point I’d be glad to talk about that.
If you want to elaborate now on each of those, that would be terrific.
In the period since its founding in the 1850s, the Republicans claimed that they were the party of the Puritan ethic, the party of New England virtue, the party of mainstream values, the party of Protestantism. In any campaign in which there’s been a religious separation, Republicans have always identified with mainstream Protestantism, whereas the Democrats have been the only party to name a Catholic for the presidency and, of course, they’re doing it again this year with Senator Kerry.
But it goes beyond religious values. In the Iowa town in which Herbert Hoover was raised, there was only one Democrat — the town drunk — and the Democrats in those years were associated with liquor, with Tammany Hall, with Democratic machines, with vice rings in the cities. That sort of reputation has continued to the present day. In 1964, Barry Goldwater exploited the fact that Lyndon Johnson’s closest advisor was found in a men’s room with another man and that was in a period when it was said that homosexuals were a security risk because they could be threatened with public knowledge of their homosexuality by Russians and other enemies and forced to cooperate.
The issue of family values became even more intense in the 1990s. The first George Bush said at one point, “I notice that the Democratic platform left out three little initials, G.O.D.,” and Clinton was charged with being not only a draft-dodger and hence weak on national security but also someone who had indulged in marijuana and was hostile to mainstream values. Newt Gingrich went so far as to say that the Democrats were identified with Woody Allen’s values — that Woody Allen having non-incest with a non-daughter in a non-family completely represented Democratic values. That statement led the conservative columnist George Will to write a very stern rebuke to Gingrich whose party affiliation he shared. That didn’t stop Gingrich, though, who later said that the Democrats had the same values as Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her two children.
In the election of 2000, the Republicans called for a constitutional amendment to reverse Roe v. Wade, and this year Bush has expressed support for a constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriage. At the last convention, the delegates were asked whether they favored civil rights for gays — not anything as far as marriage, but simply civil union rights — and only 6 percent of Republican delegates said they did. 52 percent of Democratic delegates said they did. So the notion that the Democrats are out of the mainstream this year on gay rights, on abortion, on unwed mothers — this isn’t a new issue of 2004. It has to be understood in a context going back to the nineteenth century.
These first two issues — national security and family values — arguably though not totally, favor the Republicans, though there are retorts that the Democrats can make on both of these issues. I might stop for a moment on the retorts. The Democrats can point out that in each of the four wars in this century — World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam — a Democrat was in the White House, hardly a wimpish record. Moreover, Senator Kerry holds three purple hearts, a silver star, and a bronze star for his service in Vietnam, whereas Bush was stateside under questionable circumstances. So there is a response that the Democrats can make.
Similarly, on family values, although the last thing that Kerry wants is to have a campaign concentrate on homosexual marriage, these kinds of issues, particularly abortion, emphasize the Republican weakness with women voters. If only men had voted in 1996, Senator Dole would have been the winner. Once again last time there was a big gender gap that made possible Gore’s popular plurality, so this area is going to be an advantage for the Democrats.
The third issue, the economy, clearly breaks for the Democrats because Bush inherited a prosperous economy and there’s been a down turn ever since then that has been likened to the Great Depression. There once was a time when the Republicans were regarded as the party of prosperity — from the full dinner pail of McKinley in 1896 to the two cars in every garage of Herbert Hoover in 1928 — but that came asunder after the Wall Street crash in 1929 with the Republican Hoover in power. And ever since then, the Democrats have been able to use the taunt that the Republicans are the party of Herbert Hoover, the party of depression, the party of callousness toward the poor, and maintain that they are the party of the working class.
That is continuing in this campaign. Kerry and the Democrats are saying that more jobs have been lost under Bush than under any president since Hoover. That Hoover comparison comes up again and again this year just as it did with Bush’s father. Bush’s father was George Herbert Walker Bush and Democrats said that, because of the recession in his presidency, the name should be George Herbert Hoover Bush. And there’s one searing memory that the present president has and that is what happened to his father who had the highest approval rating in history, 91 percent, a year before the election only to get, in good part as a consequence of the recession, an almost historically low vote on election day. His huge advantage evaporated.
To sum up, the strategy for Bush is to emphasize the historic ties of the Republicans to national security and family values and to hope that the economy takes a turn for the better before November. The task for Kerry is to overcome the stigma of the Democrats as being the party of weakness on both national security and on family values and stress again instead the issue of the economy where the Republicans are vulnerable.
Historically, do you think that American voters are more swayed by things that affect themselves and their own personal lives — things like “Do I have a job?” “Do I have decent health care?” or, if you’re a homosexual person, “Can I marry?” — or are they more swayed by things that are more values-oriented or big ideas about family values or national security, things that are less directly connected to their everyday lives?
Well, it’s hard to measure in any given election which of those two is the more important because both are significant. We know that people of low income who live in the South where race has been more important than in any other section will vote for Republican candidates who have policies on the economy that are quite antithetical to theirs and they will do so because they have learned over the past generation to identify with the Republicans just as, in an earlier generation, middle-class and frequently upper-class whites in the South identified with the Democratic party even though the man in power, notably Franklin Roosevelt, was pursuing policies that were antithetical to their wishes and, arguably, their interests.
In 1936, the governor of South Carolina had a bet with the governor of Mississippi as to which state would roll up the largest percent for FDR. The governor of Mississippi was delighted on the morning after the election when he found that his state had given 98 percent to Franklin Roosevelt. But he lost the bet — because South Carolina gave FDR nearly 99 percent. That could only have happened, particularly when blacks were not allowed to vote, if huge numbers of middle-class and upper-class whites in those states were voting for Franklin Roosevelt at a time when he was waging deliberate class warfare in bringing the welfare state to America.
What would you say have been some of the most interesting presidential elections, historically, that students should pay special attention to as they are studying American history?
I think many people have the impression that, in any given election, the outcome of the election is up for grabs — that both parties start out equal the way that they would start out at the beginning line of a race. In fact, through most of our history, one party has been dominant. From 1860 to 1932, a period of seventy-two years, no Democrat enters the White House with 50 percent of the vote, with a popular majority, and only two make it all, Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. Otherwise, it’s an era of Republican dominance. And that particularly becomes true after the election of 1896. From 1860 to 1896, some of the elections are close even though the Republicans usually prevail, but in 1896, McKinley wins by a large margin and that continues to be true, for the most part, through the 1928 election. In 1924, hard though this is to believe, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in the huge state of California got only 10 percent of the vote.
In 1932, in a turning-point election, the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt becomes the first Democrat in eighty years, since Franklin Pierce in 1852, to enter the White House with a popular majority and he creates what becomes solidified in the 1936 election — the FDR coalition of low income voters, of ethnic voters, and at that time still the solid South.
I’d say the next election of great importance is 1948. Let me take a step backward. In 1880, after the last of the Union troops, U.S. forces, have been withdrawn from the South, the Democratic candidate, Hancock, takes every Southern state. And that is the beginning of what’s called the solid South — that is, the former Confederate states voting for the Democrats in every election. That continues with only two exceptions right through 1944. In 1920, Harding was able to take, in a landslide, the state of Tennessee and in 1928, some states break away from the Catholic, anti-prohibition New Yorker Al Smith. FDR carries all of the former Confederate states all four times he runs, but since 1944 no Democrat has done so. That starts in 1948. And it starts because Harry Truman names a president’s committee on civil rights. The committee reports with a series of recommendations, and Truman sends many of those recommendations to Congress in 1948. The consequence is that numbers of Southerners bolt the Democratic party and form the States Rights Party, more popularly known as the Dixiecrats, under the then-governor of South Carolina Strom Thurmond who takes several deep South states in 1948. Ever since, the Democrats have not been able to regain the solid South and, indeed, in some elections there has been a solid South but a solid South Republican.
That has been particularly true since the election of 1964, which I would cite as another election of considerable importance where the Democrat Lyndon Johnson opposes the Republican Barry Goldwater who was one of the few people outside the South to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As a result, Goldwater is able to carry several deep South states, plus his own home state of Arizona. For the first time ever, the deep South becomes the stronghold of the Republican party. That has continued to this day. Most of the leadership of the Republicans in both houses of Congress comes from the South — people like Trent Lott of Mississippi and, earlier, Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
And the turning of the South toward the Republicans has primarily to do with civil rights and racial issues, as well as this emphasis on family values and the Bible belt?
Yes. It would be wrong to insinuate that every vote for a Republican in the South is a racist vote. It’s rather that as long as the Democrats were in power and the South was a one-party region, the Republicans had no chance. The wisdom of politics in the South was to stay with a single party because if you had bi-party competition, then one of the parties would be tempted to appeal to black voters. Once the Democrats ceased to be the party of white supremacy, Republicans in the South were liberated to vote the way Republicans voted in other parts of the country so that suburbanites in Atlanta voted the same way as suburbanites in Detroit. They voted, particularly, along class lines. Ever since the 1930s and perhaps before, the lower your income is the more likely you are to vote Democratic — the higher your income, the more likely you are to vote Republican.
But as you say, family values are also important and so is the issue of national security. The South is much more likely to be concerned about issues of war and defense than any other section of the country and, as a result of the so-called Bible Belt with people like Jerry Fallwell and the Moral Majority, is much more concerned with family values than other sections.
Are there particular regions or particular groups of voters that you think will be especially important in the 2004 election?
Yes, I think the election is highly likely to turn on the industrial Midwest. Assuming a close election, which people are assuming, the best way to think of party politics today is to think that we’ve reached an equilibrium. That’s about what happened last time. Gore got more popular votes than Bush but not many more popular votes, and in the electoral college, as you know, it came down to the disposition of the single state of Florida. It seems likely at this point that the Republicans will sweep the South again. The Democrats’ best hope is in Florida. They have outside chances in Arkansas and Louisiana. It’s possible for a Democratic candidate to lose all of the South and still win the election, but it means he has to take two-thirds of the rest of the country. If we assume that the Democrats are strong in the northeast and strong on the west coast, that the Republicans take the mountain states and the Great Plains, then the area of contest is probably going to be Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and then, in the east, Pennsylvania. The state of Ohio is particularly of interest. That has been a tough state for Democrats to carry.
You mentioned in the 2000 election the popular vote versus the electoral college and that is something that teachers tell us a lot of high school students were confused and sometimes even frustrated by — the idea that someone could get more votes but not wind up president. What would you say to high school students who are confused about that or who are feeling like their vote doesn’t count because of that?
Well, it is dismaying and one can understand why they feel that way. And it’s not the only election in American history where the man with the most votes didn’t prevail. That happened in 1876. It happened again in 1892. And what is interesting and, for many of us, disturbing about the election of 2000 is that it was much like the election of 1876 which was decided by the Supreme Court and with a highly partisan flavor. In 1876, a commission was set up with five from the Senate, five from the House and five from the Supreme Court. Three states were in doubt and the vote on the commission ended 8-7, 8-7, 8-7 with the Republican justices voting for the Republican candidate Hayes. Many people feel that something of the same sort happened in this past election.
I think all one can say is that when the framers of the Constitution created the electoral college, it was because they did not believe in direct vote by the populace. They thought that the country would be safer if men of knowledge and stature made the choices. In addition, they couldn’t imagine how someone in Georgia would comprehend the politics of the state of New Hampshire, which then seemed, in their age of travel by horseback, a continent away. There are numbers of people today who want to abolish the electoral college, and it’s conceivable that that could happen. The difficulty with getting it to happen is that it would require a constitutional amendment that would have to be approved by three quarters of the states, including those states that benefit from the electoral college. It’s going to be hard to get such an amendment, if it is pushed, ratified.
What would you say are some of the misconceptions that you think people have about elections in general and the importance of elections? Are there certain assumptions that people often make about presidential elections that seem untrue?
Some of these we have talked about. Most people assume that each election is a fresh contest when it’s probably fair to say that perhaps some seventy percent of the electorate is going to cast votes the way that their parents and their grandparents did. There is a little song in Gilbert and Sullivan saying that “every child who’s born alive is either a little liberal or else a little conservative.” And Mario Cuomo, with whom I once spent a wonderful afternoon at the governor’s office in Albany, once wrote that he became a Democrat the same way he became a Catholic — he was born into it. When he was a little boy and didn’t know what was going on, a priest sprinkled some holy water on his head and that made him a Catholic, and he became a Democrat in about the same way. Everybody in his neighborhood was a Democrat and why not? They were people of lower income, Italian ethnicity, had suffered in the Great Depression, identified with Franklin Roosevelt. So I think that one thing that’s important to understand is the long reach of history.
I think, again, that people may not understand how important class is in this country. We think of ourselves as being a classless society unlike, say, the European continent where class lines are so obvious. But in 1948, Harry Truman, the Democratic candidate, got a higher percentage of the votes of those of lower socio-economic status than any socialist candidate has ever been able to get on the European continent. Class is very important in American politics.
So is ethnicity. Ever since the Civil War, African American voters identified with the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator. The great black leader Frederick Douglass said that “the Republican party is the ship. All else is the sea.” And as late as 1932, at a time when blacks were suffering more than any other group and were badly discriminated against with a Republican in the White House, blacks voted overwhelmingly for the Republican candidate, as they had traditionally done. In 1934 in the depths of the Great Depression, a black leader said, “Turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall. That debt has been paid in full.” And in 1936, African Americans in large numbers moved over to the Democratic party. They’ve been with the Democratic party ever since. In the 1964 election, which pitted Lyndon Johnson, who had pushed through the Civil Rights Act, against Barry Goldwater, who voted against it, there was an all-black town in Mississippi, Mound Bayou, and every one of the voters in that town voted Democratic. In the most recent election in 2000, the African American vote went 90 percent for Gore, 9 percent for Bush. That division can be expected again in this election.
How have the strategies of candidates changed over the course of the twentieth century in terms of their election campaigns and how they try to appeal to voters? Have there been dramatic shifts in the kinds of things that candidates try to do to sway the vote?
In the nineteenth century, it was thought unrespectable, gauche, for a candidate to give any impression that he was seeking votes. William McKinley, for example, ran a so-called front porch campaign. He just sat on his front porch and various delegations of Republicans came up to him. His challenger, William Jennings Bryan, vigorously toured the country, though to no avail. Campaigning became more common in the early twentieth century but there was still that atmosphere until, in 1932, FDR flew to the Democratic convention in Chicago and said that I’m your candidate and I know it. Up until then, a candidate had to wait for a delegation to call on him to tell him that he was the nominee — something he knew perfectly well from reading the newspapers days before. But FDR broke that tradition and presidents have been more active since then.
Over the last half-century or more, campaigning has, of course, been greatly affected by television. Eisenhower, in 1952, was the first candidate to hire an advertising agency. Ever since, it has been common for candidates to employ pollsters. For example, Jack Kennedy used Lou Harris in 1960 to target certain groups — to find out what the problems were that he had to overcome, where his message was succeeding, where it was failing. That has continued to the present day.
One of the consequences, too, of television has been the attacks on the opposing candidate with brief film clips that penetrate in a way that the printed word does not and that are hard for the person who has been attacked to respond to. The exception to this is, of course, the televised public debate which began with Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. There is a famous story that those who heard that debate on the radio gave a slight majority to Nixon, those who saw it on television gave a slight edge to Kennedy — because of the contrast between the handsome young Kennedy and the scowling Nixon who had a lot of five o’clock shadow on his face. That television appearance brought Kennedy from behind and, in a close election, made a considerable difference.
The most recent campaign device that’s developed is the internet and that was very important for a brief time during the nominating period to Howard Dean. It’s not clear that much is being made of it by the two presidential candidates yet, but they will probably be making something of it in the course of the 2004 campaign.