Sabato's Crystal Ball

2004 as the Bizzaro Election of 1916

Matt Smyth, Senior Writer October 22nd, 2004

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All the way back in May, the Crystal Ball explored the possibility of “Bush as Truman” (http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/LJS2004052001) in order to give some historical perspective for the 2004 election. It seems like eons have passed in the political world since the beginning of the summer, and while we gear up for the remaining 11 days before the event that will significantly impact the country’s future, we would like to provide our readers with another glimpse into the past. In many ways, the election of 1916 that produced the narrow reelection of Woodrow Wilson bears a striking resemblance to the events and possible outcomes surrounding the current contest. However, many of the details and characteristics are virtually mirror images of today. In that sense, we present “2004 as the Bizzaro Election of 1916.” Bear with us and we will explain, but first, the particulars.

President Wilson came into the 1916 contest with a list of domestic accomplishments, but the race was dominated by foreign affairs and the ongoing world war in Europe. He was unopposed for the Democratic nomination in June, and faced Republican Charles Evans Hughes in the general election. In an effort to unite the party, Republicans had turned to the highly respected Hughes, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

While the Democratic Party billed Wilson as the candidate who had kept the country out of the war, Wilson himself had doubts as to whether that position could be maintained. He and Hughes actually had similar views on the issue, but Hughes was eventually recognized as the war candidate, due in part to former president Theodore Roosevelt’s hawkish stump speeches.

The election itself proved to be a close one–both in terms of the popular vote and in the Electoral College–with voting irregularities reported across the country. Hughes didn’t have the thousands of lawyers poised to react that we’ll see this year, so he instead voiced his protest by refusing to concede the election for over two weeks. In addition, several states failed to provide means for active duty military serving out of state to vote, and this prompted a strong reaction.

The final tally showed 9,126,868 votes for Wilson, or 49 percent, and 8,548,728 votes for Hughes, or 46 percent. A Socialist and Prohibition Party candidate together accounted for 4 percent. The electoral vote was tight as well, and Wilson’s narrow 5,000 vote margin in California secured the final 13 electoral votes to propel him to a 277-254 victory. In looking at the electoral map–with the Democrat sweeping the South and winning much of the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, and the Republican capturing the Northeast and Midwestern states like Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa–it could be a nearly perfect opposite of what comes to pass in 2004.

While much of 1916 resembles or has the potential to resemble this year’s contest, you might say that “only the details have been changed, to protect the innocent,” to borrow from the 1950s police drama, Dragnet. While Bush, like Wilson, is an incumbent president running for a second term, whose only experience in political office was as governor of hishome state, Wilson was running on a record of keeping the country out of a war and Bush is running on a strong war record. Wilson and Bush both boasted of a strong domestic agenda, but Wilson’s included a new graduated federal income tax and Bush’s centerpiece is a reduction in taxes. The constant presence of former president Teddy Roosevelt proved to be a nuisance for the challenger Hughes, and may have cost him the election. Will a certain former president be able to do the opposite, and help the challenger Kerry in the remaining days of the election?

Voter turnout was high in 1916. At 62 percent, it would not be matched for another 24 years, when Franklin Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1940. Wilson’s victory can be credited in part to his close alliance with an emerging demographic: the women’s suffrage movement. By 1916 women had the right to vote in 11 states. It’s very likely that voter turnout will play a decisive role in the 2004 outcome, and the potential exists for a new demographic to emerge–new registrants, young voters, or another yet-to-be-determined group.

Mind you, this is not a direct comparison of individuals. We are not likening Bush to Wilson or Kerry to Hughes. Our loyal readers know that the Crystal Ball does not get into personal evaluations of candidates. Rather, as part of our mission to educate as well as inform and analyze, we recognize the importance of historical perspective when evaluating the events of today. As Mark Twain put it, “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”