A dictionary definition of watershed is: “A critical point that marks a division or a change of course; a turning point.” The last three national elections—2008, 2010, and 2012—have been important, and in at least one case historic, but only one of these elections fits the definition of a watershed event.
The 2008 election was certainly historic. It was the first time that US voters ever elected an African American president. That also made the election important, because it showed, at minimum, just how far the United States has progressed in terms of race relations. After all, it took millions and millions of white voters to elect Barack Obama. And although his ancestry is technically only half African American (his mother, Stanley, was white), it was still an amazing testimony to the good will and positive outlook of all Americans that his election was possible. And, to be totally precise, Barack Obama is not a typical African American. He is not the descendent of slaves, he was not involved in the civil rights movement (too young), but he is still a man with African ancestry.
But, does the election of Barack Obama in 2008 qualify as a watershed election in American history? There is one election in the modern era that serves as the standard for watershed presidential elections and that is the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. What was the breadth and the depth of that election? Roosevelt won by a landslide in both the electoral and popular vote, receiving the highest percentage of the popular vote for a Democratic nominee since Andrew Jackson 100 years earlier. Specifically, Roosevelt won 57.4% of the popular vote, and he won 472 electoral votes to Herbert Hoover’s 59 votes. Roosevelt carried 42 states, to Hoover’s 6. It was a wipeout.
But more than a personal victory, the Roosevelt election was broad and deep. His landslide carried into office Democrat candidates running for city council seats, county offices, state legislatures, and those running for Congress. It was a sweeping election that transformed the political landscape of the United States. Democrats won 310 seats in the House while Republicans won only 117. The Democrats also took control of the Senate, where they outnumbered the Republicans 60-35, picking up 12 seats from Republican incumbents.
In the 1930 Congressional elections the Democrats picked up eight Republican seats in the Senate, but the GOP still maintained its majority. On the House side, the Republicans maintained a razor thin majority after losing 52 house seats. However, that majority was short lived as the Republicans lost more than 100 seats in the House of Representatives in 1932.
Wikipedia describes the breadth and depth of the Roosevelt victory this way…
“1932 was a realigning election, as Roosevelt and the Democratic ticket won a sweeping victory over Hoover and the Republicans, extending their control over the U.S. House and gaining control of the U.S. Senate. Twelve years of Republican leadership came to an end, and 20 consecutive years of Democratic control of the White House would ensue. Until 1932, the Republicans had controlled the Presidency for 56 of the previous 72 years, dating to Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. After 1932, the Democrats would control the Presidency for 28 of the next 36 years…
Roosevelt's victory with 472 electoral votes stood until the 1964 victory of Lyndon B. Johnson, who won 486 electoral votes in 1964... He also bettered the national record 444 electoral votes for any American presidential candidate, set by Hoover only four years earlier (and would shatter his own record when he was re-elected in 1936 with 523 votes).”
Roosevelt’s 1932 election was truly a watershed election. Governorships were won on his coattails, state legislatures turned from Republican to Democrat, city councils and county councils did the same thing. It was a top to bottom, coast-to-coast electoral sweep.
After Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945, Harry Truman became President. Truman ran for President in 1948 against a lackluster moderate Republican candidate, Tom Dewey. Although the polls showed Dewey winning easily, Truman squeaked through with a very narrow victory.
After Truman, Dwight Eisenhower won two consecutive elections that were a personal triumph for a war hero. And, although the Republicans enjoyed control of the US House of Representatives and the Senate, it had little to do with Eisenhower coattails. It was merely a reaction against the presidency of Harry Truman. The Republican congressional success was short lived and unexceptional, although there were some outstanding conservative leaders like Robert Taft, John Bricker and Bill Knowland. And, of course, Richard Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives in 1948, and to the US Senate in 1950, defeating the “pink lady,” Helen Gahagen Douglas.
The 1960 election outcome was incredibly close. Some say it was won by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, whose machine generated enough living and dead voters to give John F. Kennedy a razor thin victory over Richard Nixon.
After Kennedy’s tragic death in 1963, Lyndon Johnson coasted to an easy and predictable victory over Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. But the Goldwater nomination changed forever the face of the Republican Party and set the stage for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But before that happened, Richard Nixon won the 1968 and 1972 elections. In 1972, Nixon won in a landslide over the radical George McGovern, but political arrogance, combined with dark and dumb decisions, resulted in his resignation in August of 1974. Like Eisenhower before him, Nixon had no coattails. His election was shallow, without depth or breadth.
After the accidental presidency of Gerald Ford and the election of the hapless Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan emerged onto the American political stage with a triumphant victory in 1980. The political landscape was shaken up by Reagan not only winning handily, but also carrying a Republican majority into the US Senate. Nevertheless, the Reagan victory did not have the depth or the breadth to be classified as a watershed election victory. Although Reagan received 489 electoral votes to a puny 49 for the incumbent, Carter, he only received 50.8% of the popular vote. This was due in part to the “rule or ruin” candidacy of RINO John Anderson who received 6.6% of the popular vote.
The outcome of the 1984 election was quite different. This time Ronald Reagan won a smashing victory, receiving a record setting 58.8% of the popular vote and 525 electoral votes, an unprecedented endorsement of his successful domestic and foreign policies. However, the House of Representatives stayed in the hands of the Democrats. It was not an historic election of the scope of FDR in 1932.
After Reagan came George Bush ’41, Bill Clinton, George Bush ’43 and, of course, Barack Obama in 2008. George Bush ’41 won the first time on the coattails of Ronald Reagan’s successful presidency, then lost to Bill Clinton in a three way race reminiscent of the Woodrow Wilson victory in 1912 that was split by the pugnacious, big government Progressive candidate, Teddy Roosevelt. Neither Bill Clinton nor Woodrow Wilson would have had a chance of victory had it not been for disgruntled third party candidates in the race.
The reaction to Bill Clinton’s liberal policies (especially to Hillarycare) was so severe that the GOP regained control of the US Senate and the US House of Representatives in the 1994 elections, picking up 54 seats. This was the first time the Republicans controlled the House since 1954. At the same time the GOP gained eight seats in the US Senate, giving them a majority in that body. However, there was no depth to the Republican victory—no great turnover in Governorships or in state legislatures, in city councils, or in county races.
In 2008, based on an economic crash caused by government intervention in the housing market that pressured lenders to make loans to people financially unqualified to purchase homes, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. What was the depth of his election victory? Although Obama beat McCain in the electoral college vote 365 to 173, his popular vote margin was substantially less. Obama received just 52.9% of the popular vote to McCain’s 45.7%, an amazingly close race when you consider that McCain was a very weak candidate running after a stock market collapse. In 2012 Obama did even worse, receiving 3.6 million fewer votes than he did in 2008, for a total of just 51.1% of the popular vote.
Clearly, neither the 2008 election victory of Barack Obama, nor his 2012 victory can be considered watershed elections. There was no depth and no breadth to these election victories. In fact, in 2009 Obama put his political stock on the line, campaigning for Democrat candidates for governor in New Jersey and Virginia, only to see them both lose dramatically.
But what about the outcome of the 2010 election? This is the most under reported election of my lifetime. It was a transformational election of the depth and breadth of FDR’s 1932 election. Republicans picked up a net total of 63 seats in the House of Representatives and more than 700 seats in state legislatures. Although the sitting U.S. President's party usually loses seats in a midterm election, the 2010 election resulted in the highest loss of a party in a US House midterm election since 1938. And while Obama was winning re-election in 2012, the Republicans increased their total of Governors to 30, their highest number since 1928. And like the Democrats in 1932, they swept political races in cities and towns across the US. They also flipped hundreds of counties from Democrat to Republican. It was a breathtaking victory of monumental scope. And, while the Democrats tried hard to make inroads into this victory in 2012, their gains were nearly inconsequential, if at all.
The idea that the 2008 and 2012 election was transformational is almost laughable. Yes, the Democrats held a tremendous majority in both the House and the Senate when Obama came to office, but even with that super majority the Democrats barely passed Obamacare, using chicanery and extra parliamentary procedures. Like Hillarycare, the backlash to Obamacare was intense. It gave rise to the Tea Party movement and a rejuvenation of America’s commitment to Constitutional principles.
The truth is that in both 2008 and 2012 the GOP ran weak establishment Republican candidates. Millions of conservatives stayed home because neither McCain, nor Romney offered a bold vision of limited government, low taxes, and prosperity that was the hallmark of Ronald Reagan’s political triumphs. The Obama victories are built on a foundation of sand that can be swiftly swept away if the Republican Party turns to its historic conservative roots of Constitutional government and traditional values.
No one has noticed, but the tide turned in 2010. While I am a poor political prognosticator, I see nothing in the political wind to indicate anything but Republican gains in 2013 and 2014 that will further strengthen and expand the impact of the 2010 watershed election.