We have grown unaccustomed to presidential landslides. The three most lopsided presidential races since 1988 fell short of the conventional definition of a landslide, which would be a ten-point difference in the popular vote between the winner of the election and the next-closest candidate.
Obama in 2008 beat McCain by seven points and carried 28 states. Clinton in 1996 beat Dole by eight points (although Clinton did not even get a majority of the popular vote) and carried 31 states. George H. Bush had a seven-point advantage over Dukakis in 1988 and carried 40 states. A quick perusal of the electoral maps in each race shows a closely divided nation and no real mandate for the victorious candidate.
But that landslide drought could end this November. Economic conditions produce landslides -- prosperity propelled Reagan and Eisenhower, for example, to huge re-election wins in 1984 and 1956. Economic distress affects voters even more. Only once has a president persuaded Americans to re-elect him in grim economic times: FDR in his 1936 landslide re-election.
But FDR's re-election in 1936 was preceded by a highly unusual 1934 midterm victory by Democrats. Normally, presidents' parties lose seats in midterm elections, but in 1934, Democrats absolutely swamped Republicans, picking up 97 House seats and 12 Senate seats. Americans were sold on the New Deal, even if the nation was still in the doldrums.
Contrast that smashing victory for Democrats in FDR's first midterm with what happened to Democrats in Obama's first midterm. Republicans gained 64 seats in the House of Representatives and 6 seats in the Senate, as well as winning gubernatorial and state legislative races all over the nation. The message to Obama was clear, even if he was not listening. While Americans might have liked Obama personally, they clearly rejected the policies he was pursuing.
How bad was this midterm defeat? Democrats fared worse in Obama's 2010 midterm election than Republicans did in Herbert Hoover's 1930 midterm. The 1930, 1932, and 1934 elections are generally viewed as transformative elections, when America moved from a free-enterprise, business-friendly Republican nation into a New-Deal welfare-state Democrat nation. Democrats would hold the White House for twenty straight years after the 1932 election and hold Congress for all but two of those years.
It was not just the Great Depression which wrought this revolution. Hoover, unlike FDR, appeared tone-deaf to the suffering of Americans. He went from an enormously popular man -- not just in America, but around the world -- to a president perceived to be doing nothing while our nation fell apart. Hoover appeared to Americans in 1932 rather like Carter did in 1980 and George H. Bush did in 1992.
Obama is notably ignoring all the evidence of public unhappiness and promises to keep doing more of what he has been doing before. Moreover, his campaign has latched onto the strategy of trying to portray Romney as a scoundrel, which includes such profound silliness as when Romney is asked to respond to charges that he bullied a schoolmate fifty years ago. Even uglier are the attacks on Ann Romney, a loyal wife and good mother who is heroically battling an awful disease. Ann has been described as a woman who has never worked or, in a truly despicable portrayal, as some dilettante for fighting her battle with multiple sclerosis by riding a horse.
This sort of viciousness would not bother an acolyte of Alinsky, but the normal rest of America feels very differently, and this approach threatens to lose Obama the single -- albeit relatively minor -- advantage which he has enjoyed: personal likeability. The polls are beginning to show that this personal favorability gap between the two candidates is narrowing, and if the hatchet jobs on Romney's wife grow coarser, a blowback of sympathy could actually make Romney more likable than Obama by Election Day.
Obama also seems to think that Romney is a neophyte campaigner. That is absurd. Romney ran a good campaign against Ted Kennedy in 1994, won the governorship of the bluest of blue states in 2002, ran a very good campaign for the Republican nomination in 2008, and proved very disciplined and smart in his winning campaign for the nomination this year. Romney is no Reagan or FDR, but day by day Obama looks more and more like Hoover or Carter, only without the inherent decency of those two men.
Landslides often sneak up on pundits. Although Stuart Rothenberg has just declared Obama the "narrow underdog" in his re-election bid, the situation for Obama and his party may be much worse than that. We may be about to see the first presidential landslide in 28 years.