March 11, 2004,
The Democratic party has followed its head rather than its heart in selecting its 2004 presidential nominee. While Howard Dean gave full voice to antiwar sentiment and Bush hatred, polls say John Kerry won the prize by being the most electable. Headlines and current polling seem to be backing up the wisdom of the Democratic primary voter. Kerry is leading Bush in several national polls, and observers like Charlie Cook are quickly fashioning the new conventional wisdom that weak job growth will throw Bush's reelection into doubt. Are we fated to having a new JFK in the White House in 2005? Is Kerry really electable?
Part of the answer to that question depends on George Bush's strengths, some of which are not apparent at the moment. Kerry faces a president who continues to have strong support on the issues of great importance to voters: terrorism and national security. Bush's lowest approval ratings have been around 50 percent, well above the range that usually spells defeat for an incumbent. Moreover, economic forecasts see strong growth in the fall and historically economic growth has been the most important factor determining the fate of a sitting president.
Kerry also has several weaknesses. His voting record in the Senate is very liberal in a time when even Democrats must appear conservative to win the presidency. Kerry's major weaknesses, however, have little to do with Bush, the economy, or his ideology. Kerry's major weaknesses are who he is and where he comes from.
Instead of looking at polls and at wishful thinking by pundits, we might examine who has actually been elected president in recent decades. Looked at that way, Kerry has little chance to win.
Going back to 1972, all presidents save one have been governors or former governors of states from the south and west. In other words, all the winners have been outsiders from rising regions of the nation. In contrast, John Kerry has been a U.S. senator from Massachusetts for 20 years. He is an insider from the northeast the opposite of electable.
Long ago, experience in Washington was not fatal to presidential aspirations. In 1960, a senator from Massachusetts won the presidency. At about the same time, 73 percent of Americans told pollsters that they trusted the federal government to do what is right most of the time or about all the time. The American people mostly saw official Washington as a benevolent force that had defeated Hitler and fostered unexpected and unimaginable postwar prosperity.
Then came the 1960s: chaos in the streets; Vietnam abroad; economic decline; in time, Watergate and years of disaster overseen by three presidents who were consummate insiders. Public trust in the federal government went downhill steadily. By 1980, only 25 percent of Americans trusted the federal government.
Voters started to look for outsiders to "clean up the mess" in Washington. Jimmy Carter came first and made things worse. Ronald Reagan followed. To be sure, trust in the federal government has gone up some in recent years, but it is still not halfway back to its heights under John Kennedy. To the extent Kerry stands for Washington, he is in trouble.
Where he comes from also hurts. In 1960, the northeastern states (New England plus New York and New Jersey) accounted for 20 percent of all the eligible voters in the presidential contest. In 2000, those same states accounted for just 15 percent of eligible voters. This same decline in power can be seen in Congress. New York, for example, has lost a third of its congressional delegation since the 1960s. The northeast just does not matter as much as in the past.
But the Northeast did matter a lot for a long time. The region was home to capital markets, leading corporations, ancient universities, the television networks, the dominant newspaper, and much else. Now the northeast has to share power with the rest of the nation. The relative decline of that region bodes well for the nation. However, the memory of regional subordination in the south and west bodes ill for Kerry. Why should most Americans vote to have their lives run once again by smart know-it-alls from the northeast?
Kerry would have been electable, if it were 1960. But it is not 1960, as most Democrats must know. Indeed, some polls indicate most Kerry supporters do not expect him to win in November. His nomination is at once a gesture toward the past and a complaint about the present. It is not a serious effort to fashion a Democratic future.
John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.