The night before the election, I was feeling optimistic about a Kerry victory, but aware that because so much was unknown about what was really going on with voters in what the French call les états d’oscillation (Florida, Ohio, Michigan et al.), that I was talking myself into my optimism. That brought to mind my first presidential vote, in 1972; I had just turned 18, my participation was a gift of the 26th Amendment. The race, insofar as it was a race, was McGovern versus Nixon, an ultraliberal antiwar candidate who chose, then dropped, a mentally fragile running mate versus a paranoid lush who was not only making a historic diplomatic opening to China but also, it turned out, working overtime to entangle himself in Watergate.
I voted for McGovern, of course. I was in the midst of my first newspaper job, working as a copy boy for Chicago Today, and worked a double shift on election night. Despite what all the polls said — and though I haven’t gone back and read them, I’m sure they were saying McGovern was going to get his ass kicked — I was hopeful. I wore a McGovern button into the office. Despite that breach of unspoken newsroom etiquette, no one told me to take it off; the reporters and editors probably looked on with a mixture of amusement and pity at my delusion, long hair, and odd, sometimes bad-tempered idealism. Nixon, who had just squeaked through in 1968, won in a landslide. McGovern won Massashusetts, probably still in the thrall of the Kennedys, and the District of Columbia, whose electorate is charmingly immune from the world outside. He didn’t even win his home state. I only remember that it was a painfully long shift, with the outcome known pretty much as soon as the polls closed.
Somewhere back there in my asthmatic and thick-lensed boyhood, I had gotten the idea that the Democrats owned the White House. My mom was a precinct captain in 1960, and we had a huge Kennedy poster in our front window. His victory was a big bright spot in a bleak year, and I remember watching his inauguration on our black-and-white TV. In 1964, Johnson won. A fifth-grade classmate, Ron Crouch, wrote me recently to remind me that we had made up LBJ signs to put up in our classroom; it seemed natural to me (though I remember I thought the Goldwater bumperstickers that used the chemical abbreviations for gold and water — AuH20 — were really clever), but Ron’s Republican parents were horrified. When I got old enough, I saw some history in the notion that Democrats won the White House: in the 10 elections before I first voted, the Democrats won seven (FDR in 1932, ’36, ’40, ’44; Truman in ’48; Kennedy; and Johnson). To me, Nixon’s victory in 1968 seemed an anomaly that could be explained by the tragic death of the most inspiring candidate in the race, Bobby Kennedy.
In 1972, I was appalled by the idea that Nixon would get four more years, but, boy, did the people speak. Then, of course, the Watergate conspiracy and Nixon’s role in it was laid bare, and he was out. So in 1976, the Democrats were up again and I got to vote (absentee, because I was in Japan) for a winner (though, despite having been crippled by the Nixon scandal and having a candidate who insisted on national television that the Iron Curtain didn’t exist where Poland was concerned, the Republicans nearly won; in retrospect, that narrow victory should have been a sign of what was to come for the Democrats).
So, my votes since then:
I note that I have been nothing if not a faithful Democrat. And also that there’s only one winning candidate on that list. So after nine presidential elections, my record is three wins and six losses. Not exactly what my teen-age self expected when I cast my first vote. I know history isn’t this simple, or maybe it is but we’re in love with the notion it’s far more complex, but: I noted that in the 10 elections from 1932 through 1968, the Democrats won seven times. However, in the nine elections from 1896 through 1932, the Republicans won seven (McKinley in 1896 and 1900; Roosevelt in ’04; Taft in ’08; Harding in ’20; Coolidge in ’24, and Hoover in ’28). So maybe there’s a cycle at work here. The earlier Republican cycle was ended by a national calamity, the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression; the ensuing Democratic cycle ended with another national crisis, highlighted by the Vietnam War; and now we’re deep into a Republican cycle, with all the elements of a crisis on hand.
As I said, I believe history is more complex than this, and that the cycles I’m talking about might be only as meaningful and useful as a horoscope. Still, I think it’s apparent that the easy assumptions after a smashing electoral victory — for instance, that the Republicans and their values are supreme — can unravel with amazing speed.