In the mainstream media, the blogosphere and just in personal conversation, United States Presidential Elections are an endless source of speculation and opinion. An entire cottage industry has sprouted up, not just in the election year, during the entire political cycle, to discuss ad nauseum the prospects of even minor contenders. I am a big consumer of this type of talk, if not from political concern, from the fact that I like a good horse race.
The problem is, almost everyone can have an opinion, and many of these opinions are built up around far-fetched scenarios. A few days ago on fivethirtyeight, I read someone make a prediction that Mitt Romney would defeat Barack Obama in a 55-45 landslide. This seemed rather improbable to me, so I started to think of ways that the election could be expected to go. From that, I have put together a list of expected events and outcomes in a presidential election. This list is neither exhaustive, nor authoritative. It is, as the title says, a list of parameters. Unexpected things can happen in elections, and (almost) every election has something unique about it. However, this is a list of realistic expectations that someone can have about a United States Presidential Election:
- The winner, and all major party candidates, will have held government office. This is fairly obvious, and has been true for every election so far. No one has jumped into the oval office without some prior governmental experience.
- The governmental office will probably be elected. This one is less certain, since over the United States' history, there has been a few Presidents who held non-elected office. However, most of them were very successful military leaders.
- Further narrowing it down, the elected office that is held before the Presidency is usually Governor, Senator or Vice-President. Members of the House, Mayors or other such such offices seem to hold a rather poor record in national elections.
- A sitting President will not be (seriously) challenged by his own party in a primary. Other than a few vanity candidates and single issue candidates, or perhaps fringe figures, a sitting United States President is rarely challenged during his primary elections. This has happened a few times in recent memory --- Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter all had primary challengers, and all ended up much the worse for it. In other words, primary challenges only arise when candidates have serious problems.
- Third Party candidates are common, and often change the electoral landscape. Third Party candidates who have a serious campaign are more common than not in US Presidential elections. Ralph Nader in 2000, H. Ross Perot in 1996 and in 1992, John Anderson in 1980 all had large impacts on the elections they competed in, whether by attracting voters away from one candidate or the other, or introducing new issues into the debate.
- However, a Third Party candidate has yet to win an election in the United States. A prediction that a Third Party candidate will win should be treated with much skepticism.
- Past results are a good indicator of future performance. As in so many other aspects of life, it is fairly reasonable to believe that what has happened before will happen again. Since 1992, the election has been a contest between the Democratic "coastal" states and the Republican Deep South and Great Plains, with the contest often decided by what happens on a few states in the fringes. While change does happen, it usually happens slowly, and entire regions don't flip their preferences in one or two elections.
- October Surprises are called "Surprises" because they are rare. Most elections follow laws of momentum, and a sudden shock or shift in the few weeks before the election is not common.
- Landslides are rare. And when they do occur, they occur in certain circumstances. A landslide is usually defined as when a candidate wins more than 55% of the popular vote. This is usually something that happens to an incumbent, such as Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson. The last candidate who wasn't an incumbent to win a landslide was Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, and the last candidate to win a landslide AGAINST an incumbent was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1932.
- The winner of the popular vote will usually win the electoral college. Although this was not true in 2000, it is usually the case.
- Many elections are decided by plurality, or very thin majorities. From 1992 to 2004, no candidate got over 51% of the vote.
- While there is provisions in the United States Constitution, specifically in the 12th Amendment, for what happens if no candidate wins a majority of the electoral college, it is probably not going to happen. In the 20th and 21st century, every election has had an electoral majority. If no candidate has a majority in the electoral college, the election goes to the House. This almost happened in 1968, but it is a rarity.
There are many things that could be added or taken away from this list, but I wish to stress again that it is simply a list of probabilities and parameters used to separate the more likely from the less likely scenarios. Perhaps in 2012, Herman Cain will run a campaign as a third party candidate in which he unleashes an October Surprise that manages to gain him a few electoral votes, and deprives both candidates of their majority. The election then goes to the House of Representatives, where despite the fact that Herman Cain only won a single state (Hawaii), he manages to get elected by the House. Such a scenario is not impossible, but it is far from probable. With a few surprises, the election of 2012 will probably play out along lines established by the above parameters.
Update: March 2021
This write-up is now almost ten years old. In the ten years since I have submitted it, the United States has seen three presidential elections. Two of those elections (2012 and 2020) followed those parameters. In fact, each one of those bullet points came true in the 2012 and 2020 elections.
But, very obviously, in 2016, several of the normal parameters were not present. The Republican Candidate, Donald Trump, had no prior electoral or governmental experience. The election, which was close, seemed to have come to its result by a type of "October Surprise"---in this case, FBI director James Comey holding a press conference to announce a reopening of an investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of an e-Mail server. And Donald Trump won the electoral college, despite losing the popular vote. So in many ways, the 2016 election was the type of thing that if I had heard a pundit forecast in 2014, I would have said they were spinning stories. However, as I said, these are parameters, not hard rules, but even in this very odd election, most of the parameters that I listed did come true. The fourth point didn't apply, since there was no incumbent candidate. There were two third-party candidates, Gary Johnson and Dr. Jill Stein, that influenced the outcome of the election, while not coming close to winning. The electoral map of 2016 resembled the electoral map of 2012, with 44 of the 50 states voting the same as they did in the previous election. There was not a landslide. And the election did not end up in some sort of three way tie.
So, in conclusion, even in the seemingly historically strange election of 2016, most of the parameters were still in effect. The largest difference was a candidate with no prior governmental experience, and winning by the electoral college in a popular vote defeat. And while I couldn't guess at the offensiveness and inanity of the particular candidate, most of these parameters probably held for this election, and will probably hold for elections in the foreseeable future.