I know you might think from the title that I am going to attack Romney for his fairly stupid remarks vis a vis Palestinian versus Israeli development, but you would be wrong. Actually, what I am expressing skepticism of is the oft repeated mantra from the 1992 Clinton campaign that "it's the economy stupid" and the economic determinism that leaves some puzzled as to why Obama continues to hold a small but persistent lead in the polls.
Here's my heretical notion. It's not. I think we are at an unusual but not unprecedented moment where it is people's overall world views rather than the economy that is going to dictate electoral behavior in 2012. Moreover, I think that this has largely been the case since 2000 and that, in this respect, the era we are in is akin to the post-Reconstruction era, where, I would argue, attitudes about the Civil War continued to dominate presidential elections notwithstanding that the country was mired for virtually this entire period in substantial economic turmoil and instability, including what is known as the "Long Depression." And as in that era, we are at a point of rough equilibrium between the parties, while paradoxically few states are ever really in play.
If you look at the elections between 1876 through 1892, the electoral parity is remarkable. (Two of the five elections saw the popular vote winner lose the electoral college.) By and large the Republicans controlled the north, while the Democrats dominated the south. The Democrats tried to break through this block by nominating New Yorkers in four of the five elections -- Tilden in 1876, Cleveland in 1884-1892. New York's 35/36 electoral votes were dispositive in three of the five elections; only Tilden managed to carry it and lose due to the loss of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana in hotly contested and highly controversial battles. (Tilden was also the only candidate in this era to break the 50% mark, garnering 51% of the popular vote, but losing the electoral college by one, the only man ever to do so with a majority of the popular vote.)
From 1868 through 1892, every Republican nominee, except James G. Blaine in 1884, served as a general in the Civil War -- Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Benjamin Harrison. (Followed in 1896 and 1900 by McKinley who served as a captain.) By contrast, the Democrats three times nominated Cleveland who paid for a replacement to serve in his stead and Tilden who was a wealthy lawyer during the war. Only Winfield Scott Hancock, the nominee in 1888, served in the Civil War.
In 1876, Hayes prevailed in the electoral college by a margin of 185-184, while losing the popular vote by about 250,000 out of 8.4 million votes case, garnering 47.9% of the popular vote to Tilden's 51%. In 1880, James Garfield won an exceedingly narrow victory in the popular vote, defeating Winfield Scott Hancock by 1,898 votes out of 9.2 million votes cast (48.3% to 48.2%) -- the closest popular vote margin in American history. Garfield won the electoral college by 214 to 155, a deceivingly large margin, which basically reflects his victories in New York and Pennsylvania, which between them had 64 electoral votes. In 1884, Cleveland led the Democrats to victory for the first time since 1856, the longest electoral drought for either major party since the Republicans first ran a national candidate. He won the popular vote by a margin 25,685 out of 9.2 million votes cast (48.5% to 48.2%), while winning in the electoral college 219 to 182, by carrying New York by 1,047 votes out of over 1.1 million votes cast. In 1888, Cleveland suffered a Gore-like defeat, winning the popular vote by 90,000 out of 11.3 million votes cast (48.6% to 47.8%), but losing in the electoral college by 233 to 168 as a result of losing New York, his home state, by 15,000 out of 1.3 million votes cast. Finally, in 1892, Cleveland prevails again, beating Harrison in a three way race by a margin of 380,000 out of 12 million votes cast (46% to 43%, the landslide win of the era). James Weaver of the People's Party took 8.5% of the vote and four western states, reflecting the shift away from the concerns and voting patterns that had dominated the post-Reconstruction period. Cleveland won a substantial victory in the electoral college in a now greatly expanded U.S. It would be the last time a Democrat would win for twenty years.
The pattern of exceptionally close presidential races and of extreme national parity between the two major parties in the period 1876 to 1892 is itself unusual in American politics. Historically one party has tended to dominate presidential races for peiods of time, with close races occuring often during times of third party insurgencies -- 1912, 1948, and 1968 for instance. Truly close two candidate races were fairly limited in the Twentieth Century -- 1916, 1960, and 1976 are all that leap to my mind.
We started the Twenty-first Century with two exceptionally close races in 2000 and 2004, including the first time in which a loser of the popular vote prevailed in the electoral college since 1888. The 2008 race was not terribly close in terms of the popular vote, but John McCain still prevailed in twenty-two states, reflecting the Republican Party's strong regional base. I suspect that Romney will take at least twenty-four states this time around and will almost certainly garner in excess of 200 electoral votes, even if he loses. There will be only a handful of states in which the outcome is in doubt as of election night.
In the end, this voting pattern reflects a hardening of attitudes in terms of political identity that I suspect is likely to persist for some time -- probably for another few elections until demographic changes possibly alter the political character of places like Texas, Georgia, and Arizona, making them more like North Carolina or Virginia in the east or Colorado or Nevada in the west.
Let us hope -- and do everything we can -- in the meantime to see to it that the know-nothings who constitute today's Republican constituency cannot prevail.