- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

There has been much discussion of America’s divided electorate since last November’s presidential election. The conventional wisdom is that our nation has become increasingly divided politically and that somehow this is attributable to President Bush and his administration.

While the closeness of Mr. Bush’s victories has fueled this argument, a comparison with recent presidential elections does not show 2004 was an abnormally close election. Mr. Bush’s margin of victory was greater than the winner’s average percentage in the last seven elections. Historically, close elections have been the rule, and landslides — such as 1964 and 1972 — the exception for the last 60 years.

Yet this does not mean the divided electorate argument isn’t worth examining — not for its historical value, but for the argument of illegitimacy it implicitly seeks to advance.

The Constitution makes presidential elections America’s only national elections. All other elections are simply local contests that take place nationwide. Congressional elections, though federal, have their own idiosyncrasies that limit their comparability over time. House elections are affected by redistricting so the areas of contest, and therefore their outcomes, are highly mutable. Senate elections are muted by senators’ six-year terms and only a third of the Senate standing for election every two years. Even states see population shifts, so their presidential voting impact changes with each census.

Therefore in contrast to the electoral vote totals, which are based on these malleable aspects and magnify small differences in popular votes, the presidential popular vote percentage is America’s only national vote total.

These show consistently close elections since World War II. From 1948 through 2004, Republicans have averaged 49 percent and Democrats 46 percent of the popular presidential vote — a difference only slightly higher than Mr. Bush’s 2 percent 2004 popular vote advantage. Mr. Bush’s 50.73 percent of the popular vote was actually higher than the 50.44 percent winner’s average of the previous seven elections.

For the whole post-World War II period, the average winner achieved just more than 52 percent of the popular vote and that includes the landslides of 1964 and 1972. Without those two landslide elections, the 50.70 winner’s average is infinitesimally smaller than Mr. Bush’s 2004 percentage.

The Johnson and Nixon landslides are the only two elections in the last 15 elections in which a winner has achieved more than 60 percent of the popular vote. They also undermine any argument that large margins translate into stability, ability to govern or popular support. Despite crushing victories, Johnson declined to seek re-election in 1968 and Nixon was forced from office less than halfway through his second term.

Far from aberrations, close elections are a direct product of America’s winner-take-all presidential political system. In this system, unlike proportional representation, only the largest vote-getter in each state wins electoral votes. This encourages a consolidation of views into the lowest common denominators of two opposing parties, to maximize the chance of receiving an unbeatable majority of votes.

This logic is supported by the evidence of third party efforts since World War II. Despite some promising starts — Ross Perot’s 18.9 percent in 1992, John Anderson’s 6.6 percent in 1980, and George C. Wallace’s 13.6 percent in 1968 — only Mr. Perot was on the following presidential election ballot and then garnered less than half (8.4 percent) his initial support.

Contemporary American presidential elections essentially mean two parties each starting with 40 percent of the vote and fighting over the remaining 20 percent. While only twice in that time has a party emerged with more than 60 percent, only three times has one failed to reach 40 percent.

The discovery of close elections as a sudden contemporary phenomenon does not have a historical basis, but it may have an interpretive bias. Most likely it is the sour-grapes complaint of those who feel too long on the too-short side of these close elections. However, by implicitly suggesting close is somehow illegitimate, we undermine the conflict resolution and decision an election is supposed to provide.

If, as has been demonstrated, America’s political system inherently promotes — and for the last six decades has produced — close elections, then such an interpretive bias fosters a climate of perpetual conflict where no contest is ever concluded. The result is the value of elections are eroded.

Not long ago, the complaint was that too few people voted in elections. With last year’s heightened interest, America achieved a record turnout and the highest percentage of eligible voter participation since 1968. It would be ironic indeed if we were to go instead from a period of diminishing voter interest to one of diminished elections — from where no one votes, to where no one wins.

J.T. Young was a Treasury Department and Office for Management and Budget official under President George W. Bush, 2001-2004.

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