It Is Not 1984 (but it might be 1884)

Last Tuesday’s election results were shocking, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin all backed the Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1984. This electoral surprise has made some jubilant Republicans and conservatives giddy; a few pundits have even reached the erroneous conclusion that Republicans were given a “mandate” on election night. The presidential election results point to different conclusion.

Donald Trump’s electoral foe, Hillary Clinton, was arguably the weakest Democrat nominee since 1988. Nevertheless, Donald Trump was the second most popular candidate in the race. In fact, Mr. Trump’s win marks only the fifth time since 1864 that the victor failed to receive at least 47% of the votes cast (this also happened in 1892, 1912, 1968, and 1992). Even Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful bid in 2012 surpassed Mr. Trump’s lackluster showing.

Rather than trying to turn Mr. Trump’s weak victory into a mandate, politicos would be better served by re-considering history. In 1884 presidential candidate Grover Cleveland was dogged by scandal: he  had fathered a child with a single woman, a socially unacceptable choice during the 19th century. Nevertheless, Mr. Cleveland won the election. In hindsight this event was even more remarkable because President Cleveland was one of only two Democrats to reach the Oval Office from 1860-1932 (the other Democrat was Woodrow Wilson).

The giddy GOP acolytes should pause, because Donald Trump could be this generation’s Grover Cleveland, a rare victor in a dismal political era. Facts do not lie; Republican presidential candidates have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. The  exception was 2004, a close wartime election that pivoted on national security.

America is politically and culturally divided; the angst is visible and deep. Republicans and conservatives can only bridge this gap by identifying their core principles, revisiting their favorite solutions, and sharpening their ability to persuade a diverse electorate. Absent reflection, the impending debate over the United State’s long-term financial problems will be driven by politicians who favor a more expansive and expensive national government.

Last Tuesday’s presidential election heralded a change, but politicians and voters that favor a limited federal government cannot expect to be a powerful force beyond the next few years if they continue to lose the popular vote in presidential elections. Only innovative ideological reforms can help the Republican party stave off a dreary future.

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