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Greenfield Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He will provide Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.

Jeff Greenfield: Of landslides and coattails

April 19, 2000
Web posted at: 9:43 a.m. EDT (1343 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One of the best-loved tales of political coattails concerns a candidate for a New York judgeship many decades ago. He'd served the Democratic Party faithfully, offered a financial "thank you" for his nomination, then complained despairingly to his district leader that there was nary a button, bumper sticker, nor brochure that so much as mentioned his candidacy.

"You ever go downtown and watch the Staten Island ferry come in?" asked the leader rhetorically. "You notice all those orange rinds and newspapers and old tin cans that are dragged along in the ferryboat's wake? Well, the name of your ferryboat is Franklin D. Roosevelt."

You don't hear much about the ferryboat effect—or "coattails"-- as this year's presidential campaign begins to take shape. One reason is that, as of now, the race seems very close and close elections don't produce coattails. Right now, both Al Gore and George W. Bush are holding their respective bases, and when a candidate holds his party base, he keeps the election relatively close even when he turns out to be a weak campaigner. (Think Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996).

But there are other, more fundamental reasons for doubting that either Gore or Bush will sweep in a horde of new senators and representatives - even if one of them should somehow score a thumping victory. Part of the reason is rooted in a shift from party loyalty to independence among voters. Far fewer Americans consider themselves either Republican or Democrat than was true a generation ago; that’s because they're better educated, and get more of their information from television, which allows candidates to be more individuals, and less representatives of a party philosophy.

But there's another reason: Right now, neither Gore nor Bush is looking like a candidate who voters see as a bearer of a powerful political message — someone they will vote for not simply because of who he is, but because of what he stands for.

Those are the times when a Presidential candidate pulls his party's candidates in with him. It happened for the Democrats in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson's presumed stability, and Barry Goldwater's presumed recklessness, led voters to punish Republicans for the sin of nominating so dangerous a man. It happened for the Republicans in 1980, when Ronald Reagan represented a clear break with the prevailing political philosophy, and voters gave him not only a 10 point win over an incumbent president, but a Republican Senate and a far more ideologically-friendly House.

By contrast, when candidates (especially incumbent presidents) seem to promise more of the same, even a landslide win produces no coattails. Richard Nixon in 1972 won a victory of historic proportions against George McGovern, but congressional Democrats held on to both houses easily. In 1984, Reagan trounced Mondale by some 18 points, but Democrats in the House and Senate experienced no collateral damage. As for non-incumbents, Reagan in 1980 is the only example since FDR of a new president sporting coattails.

So, unless Gore or Bush wins a big victory and makes the case that his election is a matter of vital, fundamental political moment, don't expect a presidential ferryboat to pull in with anything very interesting in its wake.

 
ELECTION 2000

CALENDAR
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CANDIDATE BIOS
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RACES
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Wednesday, April 19, 2000


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