“What Iowa has begun tonight is a political revolution. A political revolution that says when millions of people come together, many who have never been involved in the political process, when they come together and say enough is enough . . . ”
Let’s stop right there.
That was Bernie Sanders on the night of the Iowa Caucus after being marginally defeated by Hillary Clinton. He turned his loss into a victory and claimed his revolution a forgone conclusion of the Democratic primary.
What Sanders neglected to notice was that his millions of people coming together had so far failed to show up. In a recent article for Bloomberg Politics, Sahil Kapur points out that the turnout for Democrats fell sharply below 2008 numbers by about 68,000 voters in Iowa and 37,000 voters in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Republican voters broke records in Iowa and New Hampshire by nearly 100,000 voters collectively.
These numbers should worry Democrats hoping for big wins in November. A revolution may be on the horizon, but Republicans are leading the charge.
By the mid-1970s, the end of Vietnam, Watergate, and deepened civil unrest had energized far-left liberalism into a variety of movements. Its message flowed into mainstream politics and unnerved conservative America. A struggling economy presented the public with a mixed bag of optimism and negativity that dominated national headlines. Inflation rose alongside per capita income, and large numbers of young people remained unemployed in the face of steady job creation.
In his final State of the Union address, Jimmy Carter declared that, “We move into the 1980’s with confidence and hope and a bright vision of the America we want,” but conflicts in the Middle East and a televised hostage crisis tamped down any opportunity for the president claim victory.
Making matters worse, Carter faced a primary challenge from a New England senator pushing a liberal agenda that included a massive healthcare overhaul. Kennedy failed to mount a successful campaign against the incumbent president, but the battle for the nomination and hotly contested convention that followed weakened Carter’s support within a divided party.
The Reagan Revolution began in November with an electoral win of 44 states and Republican control of the Senate for the first time in 25 years.
2016 isn’t exactly 1980, but examining history is an exercise in the study of parallels, not exact copies. What plagued the Carter administration wasn’t failure, but the perception of failure due to limited success. Perception matters more than reality, because perception pushes voters to the polls.
Fourth quarter numbers for 2015 provided by FactCheck.org show the difficulty in determining the mood of the country based on raw data. At first glance, the economic picture looks positive. The infographic to the left suggests a revitalized job market, with over 9 million jobs added since Obama took office and job openings up 97%. However, while unemployment is down and wages are rising, public debt and food stamp recipients are up by 116% and 42% respectively. The stock market saw its worst first quarter opening in five years this January, and wild triple-digit swings have continued into February, casting doubt on our economic future.
On the world stage, ISIS continues to thwart the Obama administration’s desire to conclude the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while simultaneously expanding its operations in Africa. In Syria, the United States and Russia jostle over policy and power in a battle that brings to mind the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980.
With so much ambiguity in the numbers and the world at large, the current administration is having a hard time selling optimism to the public. 64% of all Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, and Obama’s approval rate resides four points below 50%.
Republicans are energized and angry.
Exit polling and turnout data from New Hampshire and Iowa are pointing toward an energized base of conservative voters not seen since the Reagan Era. Republican voters are more likely to be angry and distrustful of the federal government than their Democratic counterparts. Donald Trump’s promise to, “Make America Great Again,” is resonating, because voters feel like America is turning away from its exceptionalism. Whether or not the perception is real doesn’t matter. What matters is that Republicans are able to mobilize voters based on the sentiment that America needs to be saved from the current administration.
Further energizing the Republican base is what’s at stake in this election. Obviously regaining the presidency is the ultimate goal, but the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has reinvigorated a debate on the makeup of the Court. Within moments of Scalia’s death the Republicans had mobilized an effort to hold up any appointments until after the election. The possibility of an Obama appointee unbalancing the bench is enough to rally conservatives who have long viewed the Court as the best way to cut back on social progress issues like abortion, the ACA, and gay marriage.
Dems look unconcerned, but they should be.
Sanders big gamble is trying to drag the country to the left, kicking and screaming, whether they want to go or not. A revolution that began with a loss can hardly be called a movement, and it remains to be seen if his single-issue will bring enough voters along for the ride. Clinton, for her part is doubling down on President Obama’s policies and essentially arguing for his third-term. At this point, it’s difficult to see either candidate coming out of the convention stronger than they were before the voting started.
If Democratic voters continue to stay home, it will shatter the notion that high voter turnout favors Democrats. Further hampering their chances is an economy that is factually improving, but still leaving the American public with the impression that Obama’s policies aren’t working to the benefit of ordinary Americans. Foreign conflicts, a belligerent Russia, and volatility in the stock market only sharpens that thinking. A worsening of any of these crises will be disastrous for Democrats in November. Just ask Jimmy Carter.
A revolution may be coming, but it’s starting to look a lot less like FDR, and a lot more like Reagan.