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In Politics, the Triple Crown is Even More Elusive

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Last year, the horse American Pharaoh became the first since 1978 to achieve the Triple Crown, winning in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Having a single political party win all three branches in Washington, however — controlling the White House and Congress while having nominated a majority of Supreme Court justices — is even rarer. The Democrats last achieved it in 1969; the Republicans managed it for four and a half years under George W. Bush but before then had not done it since 1931.

With the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, though, both parties now have a shot at the political Triple Crown in the upcoming election: the Democrats if they can somehow retake Congress, the Republicans if they can somehow retake the White House. Both Clinton and Trump have a chance at making history this year, in that case. One of them could soon become a political stud, while the other (hopefully Trump) could be sent off to the glue-factory.

Democrats and Republicans

The last time the Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress — but not the Supreme Court — was during a two-year span from 2009 until 2011, at the start of Obama’s first term. Before then, the Democrats had not controlled both branches of government at the same time since 1992-1994, and before that not since 1976-1980. They did not manage to control Congress at all between 1995 and 2007, and in 2007 and 2008 only controlled it narrowly with the help of left-leaning Independent senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have controlled both houses of Congress since 2015, and did so also from 2003 until 2007 and from 1995 until 2001. (The 2001 streak ended half a year after George W. Bush was elected when, in May of 2001, sitting Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican party to become a Democrat-leaning Independent). Before then, however, the Republicans had not controlled both houses of Congress simultaneously since 1953-1955, during the first two years of the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

For a long time, the Republicans’ bane was the House of Representatives (one of the two houses of Congress, the other being the Senate). For forty years, between 1955 and 1995, the Republicans failed to win the House even once. Yet they have reached the promised land since: they have won the House in nine of the past eleven elections, and today control the largest House majority they have had since 1928. Winning big in the House in the election of 2010 (the first election following “the Great Recession”) was particularly nice for the Republicans, as in 2011 the US had its once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries, and the Republicans were thus able to redraw four times as many districts as the Democrats could. Taking the House back is by far the main hurdle the Democrats will have to winning the political Triple Crown.

In contrast to the House of Representatives, the Senate and White House have not been kind to the Republicans of late. They have lost the Senate in four out of the past five elections and the White House in four of the past six presidential elections (or four of five, if you count the Bush-Gore-Nader election in 2000 as a wash). That they have staved off a Democrat Triple Crown during this period is only because they have enjoyed Republican-appointed majorities in the Supreme Court for decades. Their Supreme Court dominance has been legacy of having controlled the White House for 20 out of 24 years between 1969 and 1992, under Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush. At the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, in fact, only one of nine justices had been appointed by a Democrat president.

This huge Supreme Court majority was in part a lucky break, however. It was a result of Democrat Jimmy Carter (president from 1977-1981) having been one of just four presidents in US history, and the only one since the 1860s, not to get to appoint any Supreme Court judges. Clinton only appointed two in eight years, meanwhile, whereas Bush Sr. and Reagan together appointed five in twelve years and Nixon and Ford together appointed four in eight years. According to some Democrat supporters, this Court majority was not only unlucky but also, eventually, unjust, since it was the majority-Republican Court ruled that Bush defeated Gore in Florida during the 2000 election, which in turn resulted in Bush getting to appoint another two justices to the Court during his two terms in office.

Odds For 2016 

According to Nate Silver’s data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Trump has roughly a 13 or 26 percent chance at beating Clinton (depending on whether you use their “polls-only” or “polls-plus” forecast). While FiveThirtyEight has not released their predictions for Congress yet, they have also explained why they see the Senate race as possibly being a very close one this year. They have said as well that for the Democrats to retake the House will require at least a Clinton landslide victory (defining landslide as a double-digit popular vote margin, which has not happened since Reagan, Nixon, or, for the Democrats, Lyndon Johnson) — and they have the odds of such a Clinton landslide at 35 percent or lower.

Historical Circumstances

It is clear that, in modern times, it usually takes fairly special circumstances to bring about a situation in which one party controls the Congress and White House at the same time. The Democrats did it for two years after the 2008 election because of excitement over Obama, disappointment with George W Bush (and Sarah Palin), the financial crisis in late 2007, and frustration with the Iraq War. The Republicans did it for a few years under Bush Jr. — during which time they also had a Supreme Court majority — but they only achieved this through the narrowest of victories over Al Gore in the 2000 election, and they may also have been bolstered by 9-11, which occured just over eight months into Bush’s presidency.

The Democrats, similarly, did it for the first few years of Clinton’s presidency, in the wake of the 1991 recession and Desert Storm, and with the help of Clinton’s political skills and a unique ticket headed by two Southern Democrats (Clinton from Arkansas, Gore from Washington D.C. and Tennessee). Republicans Reagan, Bush Sr., Ford, and Nixon never managed to have their party run Congress, but another Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, did so during all four of his years in office, which he came into in the election following Watergate and the end of the American Vietnam War. It probably also helped that, unlike Clinton’s – and even Obama’s – mostly feigned religiosity, Carter was in actuality a devout Christian.

Before that, though, one party controlling multiple branches of the government used to happen quite frequently. The Democrats dominated Washington D.C. during the eras around WW1, the Depression, WW2, and most of the post-WW2 generation, while the Republicans dominated the post-Civil War generation and the “Roaring ‘20s”, then took office again following Democratic president Truman’s waging of the Korean War and Democratic president Johnson’s massive troop surge into Vietnam. In the twentieth century, the Democrats had the political Triple Crown from 1939-1952 and from 1962-1969, while the Republicans had it from 1921-1931. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency was particularly impactful, not only because of the Depression and War but also because he had personally appointed eight of the nine judges on the Supreme Court by the time he left office.

That is all in the past though. For the 2016 election, going by the odds of FiveThirtyEight and by other predictions that have been made, there is perhaps a 10-20 percent chance the Democrats will win their first Triple Crown since 1969, and also a 10-20 percent chance that the Republicans will get their first Triple Crown since 2006. Clinton or Trump, then, could end up becoming the next American Pharaoh.

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Images, North America

Image of the Day — Unique New York

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Last a month a report in the New York Times suggested that Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City from 2002 until 2014, has been thinking about running for President of the United States as a third-party candidate, and may be willing to spend as much as a billion dollars of his own money to do so. Today, on the sole day between the end of football season and the start of ex-Iowa primary season, Bloomberg himself confirmed that report.

According to MarketWatch, this is “the first time Bloomberg himself has said he might run, though his surrogates have told other outlets the former New York City mayor and founder of Bloomberg LP was considering such a move. ‘I find the level of political discourse and discussion distressingly banal and an outrage and an insult to the voters,’ said Bloomberg”.

The Bloomberg strategy is a fairly simple one: first you take Manhattan, then you take D.C. The idea would be for him to secure huge amounts of donor money and media support available in New York City, as well as the 5.4% of America’s electoral college points that you get by winning New York state in the general election, and then use those assets in order to lure people outside of New York to vote Bloomberg on election day too, hoping that enough Americans will not want to vote for a non-centrist candidate like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders.

While it still seems quite unlikely that Bloomberg would attempt to pull this off, it cannot be ruled out entirely, in particular because of the following constitutional catch: if none of the candidates in the general election wins more than 50% of the electoral college votes, then the president of the United States is chosen instead by a state-majority vote in the House of Representatives, wherein the congressmen and congresswomen representing each state vote amongst themselves to determine which presidential candidate their state desires. The candidate which has the backing of a majority of states then becomes president, while the vice-president is chosen by the Senate.

In such a vote, Alaska’s one congressman would have as much power as all of California’s dozens of congressmen put together. This vote would probably favour right-wing establishment candidates, since most states and congressional districts in the country tend to be relatively right-wing, Congress is currently controlled by a Republican majority, and congressmen tend to be establishmentarians. If it ever came to this, then, a candidate like Bloomberg might have something of an advantage over one like Cruz, Trump, Sanders, or, perhaps, Clinton.

Could it ever come to this? Well, it did in 1824, when “four candidates ran for president… Andrew Jackson got the most votes from Americans and the most votes in the Electoral College, but not a majority, so the race was turned over to the House of Representatives voting as states who picked John Quincy Adams instead.” Crucially, if Bloomberg could secure a victory in New York state in the general election, that alone might make it relatively difficult for one of the other two candidates to win an electoral college majority.

If, for example, Jimmy Carter had lost New York in 1976 to a third-party candidate, Carter still would have gotten more votes than his Republican opponent Gerald Ford, yet would have fallen short of the electoral college majority needed to avoid turning the vote over to Congress. Had a third-party candidate won New York, Pennsylvania, and Iowa instead of Obama in 2012, Obama would not have won a majority in the electoral college, which would have meant that the Congress would have been able to vote to select the president of the country instead.

What Bloomberg’s public presidential mulling-over really indicates, then, is the enduring power of both the state and city of New York. This is actually not just a Bloombergnagian phenomenon: Hilary Clinton served as one New York state’s two senators from 2001 to 2009, Bernie Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn, and Trump in Queens. (Even Chris Christie has influence over bridges that reach New York). For a while there was also some presidential buzz about New York’s current governor Andrew Cuomo, who’s father Mario was also a longtime governor of New York and came relatively close to becoming president in 1988 and 1992.

At this point, in fact, the only leading candidates who do not have ties to New York are those who have ties to Florida: Rubio is a Florida senator and son of Cuban immigrants, Jeb Bush used to be a Florida governor and is near-fluent in Spanish, Cruz’s father is from Cuba (though Cruz is himself a senator representing Texas), and Trump has usually lived in Florida when not living in Manhattan.

New York is also a somewhat peculiar state, politically. Though on the one hand it is the heartland of liberal America (along with California, of course), on the other hand it has politics that are in some ways quite Republican-esque. It has, for instance, groups that are strongly pro-finance (because a lot of its money and jobs come directly or indirectly from Wall Street), pro-Israel (because it is home to an estimated 26% of America’s approximately 6.8 million Jews …some of whom would also be happy to see Bloomberg or Sanders become the first Jewish president rather than see Hilary become the second Clinton president), and pro-security (because it has been the main terrorist target in America, not only on 9-11 but in many other cases as well).

New York also has a sizeable right-leaning “upstate” region, in which potentially significant shale energy reserves are located. Unlike in nearby states, such as newly gas-rich Pennsylvania, New York has not yet been allowed to develop these resources. Some upstate New Yorkers may therefore be hoping for a president who will support the removal of the fracking moratorium in the state, so that they too can participate in the regional shale bonanza.

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The last time New York voted for a non-Democratic candidate was in 1984 when, along with most of the other states in the country, it approved of a second term for Ronald Reagan. In the following election of 1988, however, New York was one of just 10 states, and the only populous state, to vote against George H. W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president. Will New York vote against a candidate from the Democratic Party again in 2016? Probably not, but of course we will soon find out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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