It’s 2011, do you know who’s going to win the presidential election next year? The answer is no, you don’t. Even if you predict now that someone will win then, and that person ends up winning, it won’t be because you knew. You don’t know.
How do I know what you don’t know? Maybe I don’t. But I do know this: Most of what people “know” in the year or two before a presidential election turns out to be wrong. Take a look at the last half century or so, and you’ll see what most people thought was a shoo-in at some point in the calendar year before the election turned out to be, well, a shoo-out.
We begin with a tragedy. Throughout most of 1963, the entire country assumed President John F. Kennedy would most certainly be his party’s nominee in 1964. Perhaps he would be reelected as well. We all know what happened on November 22, 1963. Before that date, no one knew Lyndon B. Johnson would be president.
Next comes a shocker. In 1967 – excuse the repetition — the entire country assumed President Lyndon B. Johnson would most certainly be his party’s nominee in 1968. Perhaps he would be reelected as well. In March 1968, the sitting president did the unthinkable: he announced he wouldn’t run.
In the ‘70s, we had a twofer in Gerald Ford. In 1972, when Richard Nixon was elected, few Americans outside of Michigan had even heard of Ford. By October ’73, he was vice-president! (This came after Nixon’s ethically challenged veep, Spiro Agnew, resigned.) Less than a year later, Ford was president! (This came after the crooked Nixon himself resigned.)
In 1975, did people think he’d be elected in ’76? Surely some did. What nobody thought in ’75 was that the governor of Georgia would be elected president in ’76. In fact, in 1975 most people outside Georgia couldn’t name the governor of Georgia.
Then there was Ronald Reagan. He’s remembered now as one of the most popular presidents ever, and he was. But during the deep recession of ’82, Reagan looked a lot like a one-termer. He wasn’t.
Fast forward to early 1991. The governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, is known nationally – if he is known at all – as the guy who had given the windiest convention speech in Democratic history three years earlier. President Bush, meanwhile – defender of Kuwait, smiter of Saddam’s forces (if not Saddam himself), had an approval rating at one time of a remarkable 89 percent. The Democratic heavyweights of the day – Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy, to name two – appeared to have been scared off by Bush’s popularity, and didn’t run. They left the remarkably unheralded trio of Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown and the aforementioned Governor Clinton to fight it out to see who would lose to Bush in ’92. One deep recession later, Clinton won.
Two years later, Clinton’s Democrats were walloped in the ‘94 midterm elections, losing 53 seats. The man had one-termer written all over him. Wrong.
Then there was the late ‘90s. Looking toward 2000, anyone could be forgiven for wondering how Al Gore could fail to capitalize on Bill Clinton’s legacy. Peace and prosperity, a roaring stock market, still the economy, stupid. Simultaneously who – really now – thought the fumbly, stumbly governor of Texas, George W. Bush, would ever be president. Brother Jeb, sure, but not George. Then along came Monica. Then came Gore campaigning as if running from Clinton’s legacy rather than on it. Then came President George W. Bush. Hero of 9/11, later smiter of Saddam himself. And reelected in 2004, which serves as an exception that proves the rule. I can’t argue that nobody in ’02 or ’03 could predict George W. Bush would serve two full terms.
But we quickly get back on track in 2007. Who can forget (actually, who even remembers) that then the presidential frontrunners were none other than Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton. Giuliani’s candidacy fizzled completely by early ’08. Clinton’s turned out to be much more resilient, but she too fell short, losing the nomination to the guy who was too-young-and-inexperienced-and-besides-America-will-never-elect-a-black-president.
As I write this, Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid is “falling apart.” His campaign manager just quit; ergo, he’s dead in the water. Just like John McCain was dead in the water in the summer of ‘07 when his campaign manager quit. Except he wasn’t dead in the water. McCain went on to be, well, not the president. But he came closer than anybody thought he would in ’07.
Does that mean Gingrich has a shot? I could say I know that he does. But no matter how it turns out, I’d be wrong.