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The United States Needs a Confirming Election

A Commentary by Scott Rasmussen

The United States is in dire need of an election where somebody wins big, an election that confirms someone with a real majority, and an election that provides the nation with some sense of a prevailing public perspective. Big Victories in Presidential elections don’t make everyone happy, but they do help to unify the nation and improve the health of our political system.

We used to have such elections with regularity, but it has now been 24 years since Ronald Reagan won the last Big Victory.

A Big Victory offers the potential for a President and his party to have a governing mandate. Just as important, a Big Victory helps the losing party understand clearly that they lost. When Walter Mondale lost 49 States to Reagan in 1984, no Democrats advocated calling for tax hikes in the next election! Even those who agreed with Mondale from a policy perspective recognized that the voters didn’t.

A Big Victory could be somewhat arbitrarily defined as one in which the victor wins at least 55% of the popular vote and 75% of the Electoral Votes. With that measuring stick, it becomes easy to see how our political system has changed over the past generation. The last eight Presidential Elections, from 1976 to 2004, produced exactly one Big Victory. We have now had five consecutive Presidential Elections without anybody winning 55% of the vote for the first time since the 1800s.

That record is in stark contrast with the period before 1976 when nine of the fourteen elections produced Big Victories. Five of the Big Victories were won by Republicans, four by Democrats. Of the five exceptions, two were so close to being a Big Victory that they could easily be included in that category (in 1944, FDR won 53% of the Popular Vote and 81% of the Electoral Vote; in 1924, Coolidge won 54% of the popular vote and 72% of the Electoral Vote). The other three were transition elections around a change in parties at the White House (1948, 1960, 1968). Each of those transition elections was followed by a Big Victory.

Prior to the most recent stretch, it was only in the nineteenth century that back-to-back elections were held without someone winning either 55% of the popular vote or 75% of the Electoral Vote. But, for seven consecutive Presidential Elections from 1876 to 1900, nobody won a convincing popular vote majority or came close to a dominant Electoral College victory. During five of those seven elections, the President was elected with less than 50% of the popular vote.

That, of course, is a lot like today. Three of the last four elections have resulted in a President elected with a minority of the popular vote. There’s a decent chance it could happen again in 2008. In fact, the early indications suggest another close race is more likely than the nation’s first Big Victory since 1984.

Why is this happening today? It may be for a similar reason that it happened in the second half of the nineteenth century. In that earlier time, the nation was wrestling politically with the aftermath of a bitterly divisive Civil War. Today, the nation is still reeling from and re-fighting the Culture Wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It’s sobering to note that it took more than half a century after the Civil War ended before the political system healed to the point where Big Victory elections became the norm. By that time, of course, most who had lived through the Civil War itself had left this earth.

Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait until the Baby Boomers are gone before we can have a healthy political system again.

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