Recently, while reading political opinions on Internet message boards I ran across this comment:
“Once again Democrats snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
The author was commenting on the Democratic primary process, and the possibility that it will be the party’s Superdelegates who will ultimately decide the nominee at the convention in August. The assumption is that the Democrats will doom their nominee’s prospects in November by nominating the candidate who did not get a majority of the primary election votes.
While I don’t necessarily dispute the “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” part of this comment, considering the chances for the Democratic Party in this election, I did start to wonder about the “once again” part. Have Democrats “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” in presidential elections, time and again, therefore justifying the “once again” part of this comment?
Before we review the history let’s define “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” This comment means having a candidate for president who has the appearance of victory leading into the election, only to ultimately lose on Election Day. This “appearance of victory” has three key elements:
1. The candidate has a substantial-to-overwhelming lead in national opinion polls. And while this lead may (and usually does) dwindle, the outcome, based on the polls, seems inevitable.
2. The historical precedence indicates that the candidate should win. This includes being in a political party different than the one which has held the White House for eight or more years prior to the election. It also includes the job approval rating of the current or outgoing incumbent, as well as national economic indicators and the state of international affairs (including war).
3. The media elite, including commentators, columnists, editorial writers and pundits, after reviewing items 1 and 2, “declare” that a candidate has the “appearance of victory,” and will, therefore, be the next president. This “inevitability” becomes the conventional wisdom.
Now, let’s review the history of modern day (1932 and forward) presidential elections.
In the elections of 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944, Franklin Roosevelt was expected to win, and he did. There was much “conventional wisdom” among some commentators regarding 1936; some pointed to The Literary Digest poll showing a decisive win by Alf Landon, although George Gallup (and his new organization) indicated otherwise. Landon, of course, won only two states. So no Democratic “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” in any of those elections.
In the election of 1948 it was the Republican candidate, Tom Dewey, who had all the appearance of victory behind him. Even George Gallup suspended polling two weeks before Election Day since the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Of course, Harry Truman won, so in this case you could say that it was the Republican candidate who “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Dwight Eisenhower had the appearance of victory and easily won election in 1952 and 1956.
In 1960, one of the closest elections in American history, the Democrat, John F. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon. And, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson, the Democrat, easily defeated his opponent, Republican Barry Goldwater, as expected. No Democratic “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” in either of those elections.
Like 1960, 1968 was a very close election. And while the Democrat in that race, Hubert Humphrey, lost, he certainly never had the “appearance of victory” on his side. So, once again, no Democratic “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Republican Richard Nixon easily defeated his opponent, George McGovern in 1972, as expected.
Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, defeated incumbent Jerry Ford in 1976, in a close election.
In 1980, incumbent Jimmy Carter had both domestic economic problems and international problems (the Iranian hostage crisis), which contributed to his defeat by Republican Ronald Reagan. Carter hardly had the “appearance of victory” on his side, so no “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” in this election.
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