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Explaining an Election, 1984 Edition

As we saw following Ronald Reagan's drubbing of Walter Mondale, the losing party will often try to define their defeat in a way that helps shape future strategy.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan wave to supporters at a campaign rally in 1984.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan wave to supporters at a campaign rally in 1984.

Our national fascination with elections has produced entire cottage industries of analysis: What does the election mean for the country's political establishment, and what brought about its outcome? Those lines of inquiry were especially pronounced following the 2016 election, a contest that featured plenty of storylines—sexism, James Comey, Russian interference, weak campaigning by Hillary Clinton, and so on—to which pundits could stake their theories and explanations. But what about a more lopsided election? What can a landslide tell us about the state of the electorate?

The election of 1984 offers us a very different example from that of 2016. Ronald Reagan's defeat of Walter Mondale that year was an epic blowout—Mondale lost by 18 percentage points, winning only the District of Columbia and his home state of Minnesota. In hindsight, we tend to credit the economy, which had sharply turned around during Reagan's first term, from a recent double-dip recession to produce 7 percent growth in gross domestic product in 1984. Reagan certainly ran on economic growth as an issue, but the idea that the economy was responsible for his strong election showing was not universally accepted in the years following the 1984 election. Instead, media and campaign sources focused on other aspects of the candidates and campaigns—the sitting president's humor and good looks, Mondale's pledge to raise taxes, etc.—to explain Reagan's landslide victory.

That post-election analysis was summarized succinctly by political scientist Marjorie Hershey. In a study released in 1992, Hershey looked at newspaper coverage in the immediate aftermath of the 1984 election. She recorded over 80 explanations for the election's outcome across various news articles in the immediate post-election weeks; just two months later, she could count only around 10 such explanations.

These interpretations focused on the candidates' personalities and different campaign promises, particularly Mondale's pledge to raise taxes. Mondale and the Democrats also were blamed for prioritizing "special interests" (mainly racial minorities) over working-class white voters. (It's a narrative that continues to plague Democrats.) In her study, Hershey cites a leading Democratic consultant at the time who said shortly after the election:

We have to realize that we're getting out of touch with normal, regular people. We're forgetting that the white middle-class is rejecting us. We're being wagged by the tail of Jesse Jackson, of feminists or gay activists. The average voter is saying, "What about me?"

That election postmortem was echoed by political scientist Phil Klinkner in his 1994 book on election losses. Quoting a handful of different Democrats heavyweights, Klinkner finds the inability to court working-class white voters to be a constant source of intraparty frustration. "The perception is that we are the party that can't say no, that caters to special interests and that does not have the interests of the middle class at heart," said Dick Lodge, Tennessee's Democratic chair. Harry McPherson, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, complained to Klinkner: "Blacks own the Democratic Party.... White Protestant male Democrats are an endangered species." One unnamed party leader was even more crass: "We ought to be just as concerned with the farmer on the tractor as that guy with an earring in his left ear."

It's important to recognize that these sorts of explanations aren't just simply a recurring form of Democratic self-loathing; they're issued with a goal in mind.

There is little reason to believe Mondale lost by 18 points due to his over-solicitousness of racial groups at a time when the economy was growing at a rapid clip. (And it's not as if the strengthened economy wasn't a highly publicized storyline; publications such as the New York Times were running front-page articles on its growth.)

Nonetheless, if enough influential people in the party believe that close ties to racial interest groups, rather than an economic boom, were the cause of their loss, it may lead to changes within the party—namely to disempower those interests and instead advance a more conservative set of white men. Indeed, as Klinkner notes in his book, the post-1984 Democratic Party made a number of changes to accomplish precisely this.

Chief among these post-election revisions was the boosting of Super Tuesday, a collection of simultaneous primaries, in mostly Southern states, held relatively early in the cycle to enhance their influence and the attention paid to them. The tactic did not initially bear much fruit—Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis dominated Super Tuesday in 1988 and won the nomination. But the process did aid in the 1992 nomination of Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, a candidate who ran by promising to "end welfare as we know it" and by criticizing Jesse Jackson's influence within the party. We can view Clinton's nomination as the product of a multi-cycle effort to define previous elections and steer the Democratic Party away from the influence of race- and gender-oriented interest groups and a bit more toward those of white southerners.

There's nothing wrong with trying to construct a narrative around an election. Elections are pretty blunt tools and their meaning isn't always clear. But keep in mind that there is a purpose behind defining a loss in a certain way. And if that interpretation catches on, it could push the party in a new direction.