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How Important Is the 2012 Election?

Samuel Goldman concludes that it isn’t remotely as important as many elections in the past:

By historical standards, I’d say that today’s election is comparable in importance to the titanic clash between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Given the quality of the candidates, that’s a big relief.

Whenever this conversation gets going, as it does in every presidential election year, I’m reminded of the old Rowan Atkinson performance of “Sir Marcus Browning, MP,” whose speech is a perfect example of the sort of the typically nonsensical claims about a contemporary event’s importance. The MP exhorts the audience to “stand up and be counted…because Britain is facing the gravest economic crisis since 1380!” This is only slightly more ridiculous than claiming that this year’s presidential election is one of the most important in U.S. history. We are treated to such hyperbole every presidential election cycle, and in most elections it proves to be wildly exaggerated and wrong.

Partisans promote these ideas for the same reason that their candidates exaggerate differences between the candidates or invent differences where none exists: they feel compelled to frighten and inspire their supporters into showing up at the polls. The less compelling the candidates and the less stark the contrasts between them, the more they and their supporters are forced to fall back on grim visions of desolation that will result if the other side prevails. 2008 stands out as something of an exception, because it was probably one of the more important elections of the last forty years but featured two major party candidates whose stated positions on most issues, especially domestic policy issues, were not that far apart.

Romney has generally campaigned as more of a movement conservative than McCain, but in spite of that and in spite of Ryan’s presence on the ticket the shifts between 2008 and 2012 still aren’t as large as one might think. Those hoping to draw broad lessons about what the public wants or to make sweeping claims of ideological vindication are going to be disappointed this week. As Scott Galupo notes, today’s result will likely be so narrow either way that it rules out any claim of a mandate to implement a particular agenda, and both campaigns have made a point of not laying out their respective agendas with any regularity, and in Romney’s case he has avoided presenting the details of his agenda as much as possible. It’s doubtful that there are ever real mandates in national elections, but this year there won’t even be the illusion of one.

Instead of the Dole vs. Clinton comparison, I am inclined to see a somewhat stronger resemblance to the 1992 content, except that in this election the domestic policy-focused challenger failed to defeat the potentially vulnerable incumbent. The obvious differences between these elections help to account for what is most likely happening today. Instead of a worsening economic situation, there is a modestly improving one, and instead of an incumbent president with terrible approval numbers there is one with reasonably good ratings. Under those circumstances, it would be extraordinary and unusual for a challenger to unseat an incumbent president, and it appears that this isn’t what is happening today.

It is more often the case that contests between candidates with huge differences in elections of great importance result in a landslide win for one side or the other. One of the reasons why predictions of a Romney or Obama landslide seem so hard to believe is that they are predicting a result that campaigns as unimaginative and vacuous as these never produce. If the election were as important as partisans claim and if the differences were as great as the candidates want us to believe, one side or the other would win a clear, decisive majority. As it is, one side or the other will win a narrow victory in the Electoral College that the losing side will inevitably regard as a fluke.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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