Thursday, July 8, 2010

Walter Mondale, Scapegoat

I agree with Steve Kornacki that Sarah Palin would be a potentially disastrous candidate for the Republicans in 2012.  People really don't like her, and it's difficult to see how that turns around; moreover, she gives every indication of being a massively subpar candidate, unable or unwilling to learn enough about public policy to avoid a new series of damaging gaffes. 

Kornacki's jump from there to Walter Mondale in 1984, however, doesn't really work.  Yes, Mondale got clobbered -- but he was clobbered by a popular incumbent president boosted by a strong economy.  Under those circumstances, it didn't really matter who the Dems ran; when the electorate is happy with the incumbent, there's not very much the out-party can do about it.  In fact, I happen to have a tab open with a paper by Larry Bartels and John Zaller looking at the effects of economic and other variables on presidential election results, which shows not only that Reagan's victory was exactly in line with the economic variables, but also that once all the objective variables are tossed in that Reagan actually slightly underperformed (see figures 3 and 4).  Now, one of the variables included in their analysis is ideological extremism, and I don't know how they coded Mondale; presumably, a more moderate candidate would have done somewhat better.  However, the magnitude is pretty small; in the text, Baretls and Zaller single out Goldwater, McGovern, and Reagan (in 1980) as the three examples of ideologically extreme candidates, and estimate that such extremism costs about three percentage points.  So just on ideological grounds shifting from Mondale to, say, Gary Hart, might have been worth one point or so, maybe.

The rest of it?  Mondale was a perfectly fine candidate, in a year in which Democrats really had no chance.


  1. But what if Reagan had not been in such a strong position? Then the choice of Mondale vs. Hart could have made a difference. That's probably also true about Nixon in 1972, and LBJ in 1964. The fact that the incumbent presidents were likely going to be reelected anyway doesn't change the fact that the challenger party nominated someone who would have been a bad candidate even against a much weaker incumbent.

  2. Except that there's no evidence that Mondale was a bad candidate. He did exactly what the models predict, or actually just a bit better than that. So either there's something about Reagan that made him underperform even more than Mondale underperformed, or else Mondale didn't underperform at all.

    (If it fact Hart was ideologically more moderate than Mondale, then the models would predict a bit of a gain for the Dems with Hart, but given that the most extreme gaps seem to have about a three point swing, it's hard for me to believe that the ideological gap between Hart and Mondale could have produced as much as a single percentage point difference).

  3. At least one year before the 1984 election, Walter Dean Burnham predicted that Mondale would lose badly to Reagan (assuming that Mondale was the nominee). Burnham pointed out that it was ridiculous to expect the VP from a heavily rejected administration to win the presidential election that followed that rejection.

  4. I thought the comparison to 1984 was very odd, too. I remember 1984 well. I don't think Democrats were fooling themselves and smelling blood in 1984 and I don't think Mondale was selected out of a sense of ideological fervor and spite. Mondale may have been an orthodox liberal of the times but I remember the rank and file Dems feeling little enthusiasm about Mondale's nomination. He was more or less an establishment Democrat who had paid his dues and earned the right to be his party's sacrificial lamb (analogous to Bob Dole or John McCain).

    By the time of the primary season, there wasn't a great deal of optimism about the prospect of defeating Ronald Reagan. In fact, I think those Democrats who opposed Mondale's nomination were more likely to have been motivated by partisan fervor. If they were going to lose anyway, the party might as well have nominated someone who could have generated more enthusiasm among the base.


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