June 24, 2008

Will Americans Get an Accidental President?

After the American Century

In 2000 Americans did not elect the president, the Supreme Court did, by a vote of 5-4. For democracy to retain legitimacy, it was crucial that the 2004 election ended with a clear result, which it barely did. However, there were charges that Republicans played games with the balloting in Ohio, and the contest was close. This time around, Americans rather desperately need a clear choice that will give a mandate to the winner.

If the candidates have their way, the election will be decided by clever advertising campaigns and speeches. But accidents and unforeseen events may play a decisive role. For example, if John McCain has health problems between now and November, it would devastate the Republicans. If either of the presidential candidates collapsed from exhaustion on the campaign trail, such a small health failure could undermine them. But let us hope and assume health will not be an issue. In that case, there are four categories of disaster that are beyond the candidate’s control: economic collapse, natural disaster, a terrorist attack, and bizarre events. Let us look at all four, to see who might have an advantage in each case.

The worst disaster for the Republicans would be massive economic failure. The American economy is teetering between recession and recovery, the most dangerous possibility is a stock market collapse, perhaps caused by the persistent housing crisis. Historically, the American market has not been strong in October, and twice it has crashed in that month. In late October, 1929, the market collapsed, devastating the economy for years, and dooming Herbert Hoover to be a one-term president. Likewise, in October 19, 1987 the New York Stock Market lost 23 percent of its value in two days. Nothing quite like that has ever happened in an election year, but McCain would almost certainly lose if it did. Al Gore’s campaign was hurt by the rapid fall in computer technology stocks in March 2000. When the dot.com bubble broke, many realized that the “new economy” was over. Had the market kept surging until after November, Gore presumably would have won more popular votes. If stocks fall in the month before the election, expect Obama to win, assuming he has not made a major mistake.

Natural disasters can also play a role in the campaign. September and October are huricaine season, and anything remotely resembling the Katrina (mismangement) disaster would also hurt the Republicans. However, in general, natural disasters tend to help the party in power, assuming it makes the most of the opportunity to show compassion and leadership. Just as importantly, a disaster can release huge sums of money to help an afflicted region, while the party in power can tour the area to inspect the damage, sweeping opponents off the front pages of the newspapers. The current floods in the Midwest thus favor the Republicans if they respond credibly to the disaster. As fate would have it, at least two swing states are affected by the surging waters, Missouri and Iowa.

The most unpredictable event would be a terrorist attack. Potential terrorists might try shape the outcome of the election, as they did in Spain with the Madrid train bombings. Depending on the target, the timing, and the administration’s response, would an attack strengthen McCain or hurt him? To put this another way, would an attack be more like an earthquake, giving the Republicans a chance to look heroic and sympathetic in the face of adversity, or would it be more like a stock market crash, a sign that the party in power is incompetent and unable to preserve the nation from harm? These are not easy questions to answer, and each party would try to put political spin on any attack. However, assuming that an attack did not reveal an egregious, gaping hole in Homeland Security (in which case Republicans get the blame), any terrorist activity would make national security, not the economy, the main issue. This presumably would favor McCain, because of his military background.

Finally, in America one cannot rule out the bizarre event. Any number of things might take everyone's mind off the election. A major sex scandal; a police case resembling the O.J. Simpson murder, chase, and trial; a major riot in an American city; a high-profile disaster in the space program; some new Brittney Spears antics; the authentic return of Elvis to a major shopping mall; a surreal hostage drama involving Osama bin Laden himself in Pakistan - who knows? A bizarre event that distracts the voters could have unpredictable consequences. One should even include the weather. Generally speaking, bad weather means a lower turnout, which is good for the Republicans, who as a group are wealthier and more able to get to the polls. An early blizzard sweeping through the "blue" states would not be good for the Democrats.

In a close election extra-political factors could be decisive, and the result might be an accidental president. You think this is impossible? Before the 2000 election, who thought the hanging chads in Florida was possible? This time around, what if the new computerized voting machines are erratic? We must hope for a decisive victory, not a roll of the dice. After Bush, Americans need a new president with unquestionable legitimacy.