Thursday, August 2, 2012

Jimmy Carter, Really That Bad

I missed this one earlier this week...

Brendan Doherty is blogging about incumbent presidents and electioneering over at the Monkey Cage this week, based on his new book on the same topic.

Anyway, it's no big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I always like to pick on Jimmy Carter when there's a chance -- and it turns out that of the recent presidents, Carter is the only one who couldn't be bothered to devote most of his presidential trips within the US to battleground states. In his first three years of office, that is; he was with everyone else in the fourth year.

Now, I have no idea what the evidence is on this, but I can't imagine that all those trips to Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida back in 2009 and 2010 really did much for Barack Obama. But still, you know, the president owes it to his party and his supporters to do what he can, and it's not as if showing up in major battlegrounds is going to hurt. I mean, Carter's start-and-stop economic policies were a much bigger deal, but this is yet another piece of it.

A fair number of liberals mistakenly think that Carter must have been a decent president because they like his policy positions on issues they care about. But the presidency is far, far, more than having good instincts on policy. It's a political job above all, and in things big and little Carter was just awful at it. And this one? Typical Carter: acting above all that crass politics stuff until the end, when it was way too late.


  1. I don't really understand this. One of the odd things about this presidential race is that, it's a pretty stable 50-50 race for the most part, yet Obama's numbers in the battleground states are shockingly good, especially in the two states you mentioned. But you conclude that those visits didn't make any difference, based on what? I am willing to hear more about it, but I don't really get where you're coming from here.

  2. Hold on a second: that table shows that, in EACH year of his Presidency, Carter spent MORE time in his battleground states than both GWBush and Obama did in theirs. The yellow shading reflects disproportionate attention to those states compared with their populations. Well, that makes perfect sense: Obama's states comprised only 36% of the population, because some of them were fairly small--NC, IN, IA, NV, NH.

    By contrast, Carter's battleground states represented 73% of the population, because they were almost all huge: CA, IL, MI, NY, OH, PA, FL, TX, MO, NJ, WI.

    Each year, Carter spent as much or more time in those states than Obama spent in his battleground states.

    Now I don’t know where Carter spent the remainder of his days of public events in his first three years. Maybe with Reagan the most likely opponent he basically wrote off CA. And given that his natural base was the South, and that he could imagine Reagan and a handful of other potential opponents, like Bush, Connally, Baker, even Dole having more success there than Ford did, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did some retail campaigning in KY, TN, WV, MS, and the Carolinas, at least. (And in fact, Reagan’s margins in the Deep South and Appalachia came in at .29%-2.12%. Not that it would have mattered by then.)

    If he was spending electoral time in the South and Appalachia, and not just lollygagging in GA or elsewhere, then I’d think your criticism is a bit too strong.

  3. I have a chicken-egg question. Since we often hear that apparent battleground state leads may evaporate if the overall fundamentals worsen, is there a case to be made for not focusing on them, reaching out to more people in the country at large (e.g., rally in TX or CA), and hoping that shoring up national poll numbers bolsters showing in swing states, rather than vice versa? Part of me tells me I'm being stupid here, but I thought I'd finish the thought before thinking too hard.

  4. Andrew Long: thanks for pointing out something that is too often forgotten--that in 1980 the South was still a battleground. Yes, Carter only caried Georgia, but he came within a couple of points of Reagan in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In fact, ironically, the South, the area of the country where John Anderson did worse, may be the area where he actually changed some results!

  5. I think this is a stupid criticism. Yes, of course, from a pure political standpoint, you should go to battleground states.

    But I DON'T WANT my President to obsess about the needs of swing states while giving the back of his or her hand to the rest of the country. Some of the worst government policies are the result of this sort of thinking-- see our policies on Cuba, Israel-Palestine, sugar, and ethanol for examples.

    It may be inevitable that Presidents do this anyway, but we shouldn't celebrate it or condemn politicians who don't play the game.


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