This paper went to press before the results in Iowa were in, but Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, and Mitt Romney, a one-term governor of Massachusetts, were leading in Iowa Republican polls. Barack Obama, in his fourth year in the Senate, was running strong in the Democratic contest, as was John Edwards, who spent just one term in the Senate and has now been running for president or vice president for six years.
Voters make pretty much the same decisions time and again for 14 years. Then in the 16th year decide they are disgusted with the results.
Even Hillary Clinton, campaigning as the candidate with experience, has limited credentials. She has some experience with the pressures of the White House and has taken some initiative on domestic policy, with mixed results. But as Patrick Healy of the New York Times pointed out recently, she never held a security clearance during her husband's presidency, and last week she was under the impression that Pervez Musharraf was running in parliamentary elections in Pakistan, although he was elected president in October.
New Hampshire may give us different results, and there is no guarantee that any of the top finishers in Iowa will be nominated, much less win the presidency. But what we are seeing this year is an unusual preference for outside-the-system candidates with less top-level experience than voters usually want in a president.
An unusual preference, but not unprecedented. In 1992 voters elected a 46-year-old Arkansas governor as president, and in the spring of that year, if the polls are to be believed, they were ready to elect a Texas billionaire whose governmental experience included serving as a junior naval officer and running a firm that provided computer services to local welfare departments. In 1976 voters elected a one-term former governor of Georgia who'd served as a state senator and a naval officer.
The metrically minded will see a common thread. Every 16 years--in 1976, 1992 and now in 2008--American voters have seemed less interested in experience and credentials and more interested in a new face unconnected to the current political establishment. What can explain this 16-year itch?
The first explanation is that voters are responding to public policy failures. The insiders have screwed up; let's take a chance on an outsider. This fits 1976 very well. The foreign and defense policy experts of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations gave us Vietnam. Richard Nixon gave us Watergate, and his successor Gerald Ford pardoned him. Nixon also gave us a juiced-up economy in time for the 1972 campaign, which resulted in inflation and stagnant economic growth--stagflation--in the ensuing years.
But public policy failure doesn't fit 1992 or 2008 as closely. Yes, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton campaigned against "the worst economic recession" since the 1930s. But in fact the economy was growing throughout 1992, and the recession of 1990-91 was one of the mildest ever recorded. During the preceding four years the Soviet Union collapsed, and the U.S. and its allies won a crushing victory in the Gulf War.
Perhaps voters were upset about the tax increase that the Democratic Congress and George H. W. Bush, despite his "read my lips" pledge, colluded in. But the result was the election of a Democratic president and Congress who predictably raised taxes again.
Similarly, "it's the economy, stupid," doesn't really explain the apparent hunger for an outsider this year. The economy has been growing smartly for five years and, despite the subprime mortgage mess, apparently continues to do so. Inflation is low.
Polling suggests that voters' assessments of the economy are rooted more in partisan loyalties than in observation of economic conditions. Republicans complained about the robust economy when Mr. Clinton was president. Democrats have complained about the robust economy most of the time George W. Bush has been in office.
A year ago one could have said that voters were discontented with the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Mr. Bush's experts--the "vulcans," as James Mann called them in his book on their backgrounds--had failed to produce victory. But Mr. Bush got rid of many of the chief vulcans and ordered the surge strategy which has now had undeniable success. Democrats, you may notice, have stopped talking about Iraq, and Republicans don't have much to say about it either. So the public policy failure explanation of the 16-year itch is less than wholly satisfying.
The second explanation that occurs to me is that voters get tired of the predictable results of their own collective decisions. The discontented voters in 1976 had, after all, elected Richard Nixon to two terms, the second by an overwhelming margin, and had elected Democratic Congresses to serve with him. They knew something about Nixon's weaknesses as well as his strengths, and got what they might have expected. Even so, they were disgusted enough with the results that they elected a president who would not have been a plausible candidate in most election years.
Or look at 1992. At that time it was the conventional wisdom that the Republicans had a lock on the presidency and the Democrats a lock on Congress (or at least on the House of Representatives). And in fact, voters chose a Republican president and a Democratic House through the 1980s (Republicans did have a majority in the Senate for six years, but never a filibuster-proof one). The result was a considerable amount of gridlock and partisan sniping. Longstanding one-party control in Congress resulted in scandals (remember the House bank?). So voters upset the conventional wisdom and elected a Democratic president and, in 1994, a Republican Congress.
Now consider today. For the past 14 years, voters have been almost precisely evenly divided between the two parties. Mr. Clinton was re-elected with 49% of the vote, Mr. Bush with 51%. For six years we had a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, a situation that changed in 2000 when Mr. Bush was elected by the narrowest of margins. For six years we had a Republican president and a Republican Congress (except for 18 months when Jim Jeffords gave Democrats a 51-49 Senate majority), a situation that was ended when voters chose, by a small but decisive margin, a Democratic Congress. We hear complaints from voters on all sides now about earmarks, pork-barrel spending and the scandals that resulted in part from longstanding one-party control.
Again the pattern: Voters make pretty much the same decisions time and again for 14 years. Then in the 16th year decide they are disgusted with the results.
Why 16 years? Political scientists like to come up with generalizations about voting behavior for all time. The problem is that we don't have the same electorate over time. Political scientists have developed rules for predicting presidential elections based on macroeconomic trends at a time when most voters remembered the trauma of the Great Depression. Most voters today don't and those rules no longer work.
One such rule predicted that Al Gore would get 56% of the vote in 2000, which was 8% off. Your barber or hairdresser could have come closer.
My thought is that, over a period of 16 years, there is enough turnover in the electorate to stimulate an itch that produces a willingness to take a chance on something new.
Over time, the median-age voter in American elections has been about 45 years old. This means that the median-age voter in 1976 was born around 1931--old enough to have experienced post-World War II prosperity and foreign policy success, and then to have been disgusted by Vietnam and Watergate.
The median-age voter in 1992 was born around 1947 (the same year as Dan Quayle and Hillary Clinton, one year after Messrs. Clinton and Bush, one year before Mr. Gore). These voters came of age in the culture wars of the 1960s. They experienced stagflation and gas lines of the 1970s, and the prosperity and foreign policy successes of the 1980s. Mr. Clinton persuaded these voters to take a chance on change by promising not to radically alter policy. They rebuked him when he tried to break that promise, then for 14 years remained closely divided along culture lines as if the '60s never ended.
The median-age voter in 2008 was born around 1963, so he or she missed out on the culture wars of the '60s, and on the economic disasters and foreign policy reverses of the 1970s. These voters have experienced low-inflation economic growth something like 95% of their adult lives--something true of no other generation in history. They are weary of the cultural polarization of our politics, relatively unconcerned about the downside risks of big government programs, and largely unaware of America's historic foreign policy successes. They are ready, it seems, to take a chance on an outside-the-system candidate.
Are 16-year itches inevitable? I'm not going to predict the result of the New Hampshire primary, much less predict the presidential cycle of 2024 (when Chelsea Clinton and the Bush twins will be eligible to run for president and Jeb Bush will be younger than John McCain is today).
Going back in history, it's hard to fit 1960 into a 16-year itch pattern (when John F. Kennedy edged out Nixon) and impossible to make it fit 1944 (when World War II was far from won and FDR was re-elected to a fourth term). Plus, we don't know who's going to win this year.
But there does seem to be something like a cycle operating, at least over the last several decades. Voters elect one kind of government, and then get disgusted with the results. New voters, taking the good things of the present for granted and ignorant of the bad things of the past, are willing to take unusual risks. That seems to be happening this year. So maybe I'm on to something.
Michael Barone is a resident scholar at AEI.