From the fever swamps of the blogosphere to the halls of academia, there is a chorus of voices who have come to the same conclusion about the presidential election: Barack Obama is going to win in November, by something resembling a landslide.
Yet for all the breathless analysis and number-crunching that has convinced observers Obama is en route to an epic victory, there is one key historic fact that is often overlooked—most popular vote landslides were clearly visible by the end of summer. And by that indicator, 2008 doesn’t measure up.
In five of the six post-war landslides (defined as a victory of 10 percentage points or more) the eventual winner was ahead by at least 10 percentage points in the polls at the close of August, according to a Politico analysis of historical Gallup polls. Over the past week, however, Gallup’s daily tracking poll pegs Obama ahead of John McCain by a margin of 2 to 5 percentage points.
The one exception to the August rule was 1980. Ronald Reagan was trailing slightly in the August polls before surging forward to win by roughly a 10-point margin.
By comparison, the biggest post-war landslides—1964, 1972 and 1984—were signaled by a large, double-digit advantage held by the eventual winner at the close of August.
Lyndon Johnson was trouncing Barry Goldwater in one late August 1964 Gallup poll, 67 percent to 26 percent, taken on the opening day of the Democratic convention. A July poll showed Johnson also winning by a two to one ratio. Johnson went on to win the race 61 percent to 38 percent.
While Richard Nixon in the summer of 1972 was not faring as well as Johnson in late summer 1964, it was nevertheless clear in Gallup’s polling that the incumbent was on his way to a rout that would have been hardly imaginable just four years before.
In mid-July, Nixon was only ahead by about 10 percentage points. But by early August Gallup tracked that his lead had grown to twice that. He went on to win by 23 percentage points, nearly his exact margin in August.
Reagan, in his 1984 re-election campaign, also was ahead by a modest 10 points in August. But he won in the fall by nearly twice that margin.
In the past two months, Obama’s polling has held steady, remaining in a narrow single-digit band.
“There certainly was a definite cockiness that Democrats felt once they regained control of Congress, and I’ve also felt it was a misplaced cockiness,” pollster John Zogby said.
Still, he acknowledged why there was such optimism. “You’ve got a lot of conditions that are similar to 1932 and similar to 1980, a very unpopular president and the party brand badly hurt.”
Only two post-war popular vote landslides have occurred without an incumbent finishing on top—1952 and 1980. They offer conflicting lessons.
In the case of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, two late August Gallup polls showed him with at least 53 percent of the vote and ahead by at least 15 percentage points. But the race narrowed in polling to a dead heat before Eisenhower pulled off his 11-point win. In his 1956 rematch with Adlai Stevenson, he expanded his margin to a 15-point blowout.
By contrast, in July 1980 Reagan was tied with President Jimmy Carter. One July 22 Gallup poll had Reagan ahead by 2 points. But by late summer Gallup repeatedly reported a tight race. Carter was often leading by several percentage points before Reagan pulled ahead at the end.
For political analyst Charlie Cook, 1980 is the most “relevant race” to look at when assessing the 2008 contest.
“There is a possibility of a blowout [this year],” Cook said. “But we won’t know if it’s going to happen until late.
“I don’t think you see leads in presidential races over 5 points in this day and age. He’s averaged leads of 3 points since spring. The key is that Obama hasn’t closed the sale,” Cook continued. “It wasn’t until Reagan reached the threshold that he was able to close the sale.”
“The question is,” Cook added, “does Obama ever close the sale?”
Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford University political scientist, notes that several political forecasting models today predict the Democratic candidate winning a clear majority of the vote, a threshold that has thus far escaped Obama in polling. But he adds that those predictions are for a generic Democrat under “normal circumstances” in a year where the Republican Party is in dire straits.
“The real question is why is Obama then underperforming?” Iyengar added. “There is something about Obama that is causing something of drag.” Iyengar believes that something is Obama’s race.
Several pollsters agreed that race is a significant factor in this election, though they count others of roughly equal influence.
“This may sound kind of harsh, but if the Democratic nominee were a white male from a red or purple state, the theory would be dead on that this would be set up, there would be a very, very high probability for a Democratic landslide,” said Brad Coker, the managing partner of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.
Coker said that, in his view, two factors along with race are anchoring down Obama. He cites Obama’s political inexperience and that “you’ve never had a young guy win by such a large margin, post-war.” Coker added that Obama’s ideology and geography were also factors, though of lesser importance in his view.
But even if Obama built a big lead, it would also not necessarily presage a big win. In 1976, Carter led Gerald Ford in the summer by about 20 percentage points in some polls. Ford closed in by Election Day. Carter barely pulled out a victory.
If nothing else, the contours of the 2008 political environment suggest there is still hope for Democrats who expect nothing less than a resounding victory.
“The conditions are ripe for either a near-landslide, maybe 53 percent, or a landslide,” said the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, though he notes the race looks to be significantly closer.