All About That Base / by Chris Weigl

Much of our series Living History revolves around politics.  The premise is based on a man impersonating George Washington for political gain by running for office.  The idea came about during the 2011 Wisconsin recall election.  People talked about how great Scott Walker was and one strategist remarked that she was more satisfied with Walker as a candidate than she would have been if they were running George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.  It seemed like a peculiar statement.  Both Washington and Jefferson had higher approval ratings than Walker, but this opinion came from a Republican strategist.  Her point was that Walker energized the base of his party more than any hypothetical candidate could.  It was a bold assertion.  One that raised the question of whether a moderate candidate could win a base election in today’s hyper-polarized environment.  What people don’t realize (perhaps because they don’t want to believe it) is that America has always been a very polarized nation.

People forget that a large segment of the population remained loyal to the crown during the Revolutionary War and that a high percentage of American soldiers actually deserted during the war as well.  We like to think that we’ve always been a very patriotic nation and that we’ve been much more unified that we actually have been.  If you look at American politics historically since George Washington’s decision to retire after two terms in office as President you see that America has always been a nation split between two parties.  The parties may have changed over the years, but the division in American politics has largely remained the same.  We are a nation that loves nostalgia though and if we think that our past is better than it was then we can feel free to believe that the future can be brighter than it actually can be.  Narrative elections are much easier to win than base elections.

Today we are in the midst of a large number of base elections.  From 1980 to the present if we look at midterm elections they have almost always been base elections.  The lone historical caveat would be 2002 – a year that Republican trounced Democrats on the issue of homeland security – because it was the first election since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 Republicans were able to make easy work of Democrats who attempted to balance being strong on national defense without compromising civil liberties.  Otherwise we’ve been remarkably consistent in terms of how midterm elections unfold. 

The party that is not in control of the Presidency always does much better than the party that controls the White House.  Democrats won a majority of midterm elections during the Reagan administration.  Republicans did extremely well during the Clinton and Obama administrations.  Republicans have also done a good job in recent years of consolidating their power in state legislatures by coordinating local elections with state-wide Governor’s races.  By energizing their base during midterm elections however Republicans have created unrealistic expectations of their mediocre Presidential candidates in general election years.  Strategists on the right don’t plan for a regression towards the mean during general election years.  General election voter turnout tends to be much more moderate than during midterm elections where the base drives the party that is not in control of the White House to huge victories.

Elections are not nearly as complicated as pundits make them out to be.  You have to ask yourself one simple question when it comes to politics and that is: what and what is setting the narrative?  If the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had lost to challenger Allison Grimes that would have set the narrative in the 2014 midterm elections.  It would have been the lone caveat that Democrats could have savored despite suffering victories on all other fronts during the night.  When a Republican strategist said she would rather have Scott Walker as her candidate than a founding father that sets a narrative.  It makes you think about what world we living in that a clear political partisan would be preferred over a historical figure that had such a great impact on our history that they are depicted on one of America’s most recognized national landmarks: Mount Rushmore.  That is the kind of crazy idea that needs to be made fun of and this is the kind of world that we are replicating in Living History.  The world is such a crazy place that people believe that their partisan ambassadors are better at their jobs than national icons.  Someone needs to take them to task for this and we’re excited to be the ones entrusted with this endeavor.