It is always difficult to interpret the meaning of the results of an election. Numerous commentators interpreted Barack Obama’s re-election. On one hand, he was sent back to office; therefore the results can be seen as an approval of his presidency. However, his support in the Electoral College and the popular vote went down since the last election, which can interpreted as a warning sign. The only consequence of this election that it is truly clear is that landslide victories are over.
There is no exact point at which a victory becomes a landslide, but when a candidate wins over 400 of the 538 Electoral College votes with a popular support of over 55%, he is certainly in landslide terrain. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four victories were clear landslides. After this Democratic dominance during the 1930s and early 1940s, Republican Dwight Eisenhower won back-to-back landslides in 1952 and 1956.
Landslides didn’t become uncommon afterwards. In 1964, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson won over 60% of the vote and a whopping 486 Electoral College votes. Only eight years later, in 1972, the Republican incumbent Richard Nixon won the support of voters in 49 states and claimed over 60% of the nationwide vote. Finally, Ronald Reagan turned the 1980s into an era of conservative dominance in the national discourse. He won overwhelming Electoral College support in 1980 (though he only claimed 51% of the national vote) and in 1984 he won 49 states and 59% of the vote.
There have been seven elections since 1984, and no winning candidate has ever even come close to matching the support of many of their predecessors in terms of popular vote and Electoral College votes.
Many things can explain what is causing the end of landslide victories. Partisan divide is the most evident cause. The climate between Democrats and Republicans has seemingly become toxic. It is no longer advantageous to appeal to the other side. In turn, candidates win elections by mobilizing their bases and not bothering to appeal to voters and states that wouldn’t naturally support them.
Barack Obama did specifically that. Thanks to the support of Hispanics, Blacks, women, youths and automobile industry workers in Ohio, he was re-elected. Obama’s two victories weren’t razor thin and in fact quite significant in terms of the support he received. But, they were in no way comparable to the substantial landslides of previous generations. George W. Bush won his two mandates by consolidating his base in a few key states and won very narrowly both times.
However, you cannot only blame the candidates for the end of landslides. Many states have begun to show an overly intense partisan affiliation. Since 1992, for the past six elections, twenty-nine states have voted for the same party. And since 2000, for the past four elections, forty states have voted the same way. This brings candidates to take many states’ support for granted and to disregard the idea winning other states.
Since the end of landslides, the Southern and central states have been almost all loyally Republican, while the North Eastern and West coast states have been loyal to the Democrats. In the past twenty years, a Republican candidate was never able to garner the support of classically liberal states like California and New Jersey. Though previous Republican presidents like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush won the support of those states.
On the other hand, in the same time frame no Democratic candidate was ever able to win traditionally conservative states like Texas or South Carolina. Though Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 were both able to win those states as Democrats and capture the presidency.
Since both parties have very strong regional guarantees, their presidential candidates focus their efforts on a handful of key swing states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Nevada and Colorado.
But the greater question is: Will the end of landslides lead to the end of great presidents? Has the end of landslides diminished the level of national unity and weakened the capacity of the president to do great things?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four landslide wins gave him the confidence and mandate necessary to lead America through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Eisenhower’s landslide wins permitted him to give America a strong stance at the beginning of the Cold War and to launch the Interstate Highway System.
Lyndon Johnson’s landslide mandate in 1964 allowed him to pursue substantial ideas like civil rights reform in the South and the creation of a strong welfare state by introducing Medicare and Medicaid. Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories and the relatively strong victory of his successor and vice-president George H. W. Bush allowed the two of them to carefully steer America out of the Cold War in a triumphant fashion.
Since the end of these landslide victories, confidence in the president has strongly diminished. Bill Clinton nearly suffered the first impeachment in American history and was greatly hurt by the fact that he was not able to reform health care. His poor management in foreign affairs is apparent in the rise of a strong anti-American left-wing movement in Latin America since he has left office and the rise of the terrorist threat. Bill Clinton is not necessarily seen as a poor president, but he is definitely not considered in the top tier.
His successor, George W. Bush, poorly managed America’s finances and involved the country in the unpaid-for and misguided war on terror and is ranked quite poorly by historians.
Barack Obama never won an outright landslide, though his 2008 win is the strongest presidential victory for a Democrat since 1964. The next four years will show us whether he can become a truly great president. To do so, he will have to lead America with strength on the international stage, create a sense of unity in the country through policies and narrative and he will have to end the dysfunction that exists in Congress. However, there is no guarantee that this will happen and the fact that 48% of Americans voted for Mitt Romney is not to be overlooked.
Just by looking at voter behaviour throughout most states in the country, the era of landslide victories is over. But this may lead to the end of great presidents. The bulk of the American population is no longer able to rally behind a single candidate for the greater good of the nation like they did with FDR, Eisenhower, Johnson and Reagan.
– Eric Deguire
Eric is a political science student at the Université de Montreal.