Here's the conventional wisdom about the economy and its role in the 2008 presidential election: Simply put, if there's a recession, a Democrat wins and a Republican loses.
History says as much. In his book The 13 Keys to the Presidency, historian Allan Lichtman notes that all seven times since the Civil War when the economy was in recession in the fall of a presidential election year—1876, 1884, 1896, 1920, 1932, 1960, and 1980—the candidate from the opposition party was elected president.
Heck, sometimes if there's even a whiff in the air of an approaching or recently departed recession—as in 1992 and 2000—that may be enough to eject the incumbent party. Political forecasting models that use economic variables also assume a Democratic victory if the economy weakens. And right now, the online betting markets think there is about a 50 percent chance of a recession in 2008 and nearly two-thirds chance of a Democrat winning.
What's more, the "bad news for the economy is good news for Democrats" has been my assumption as well. But I'm not quite as sure as I once was. Recently liberal blogger Ezra Klein wrote a contrarian piece—"Does the GOP Need Iraq?"—that argued Democrats would benefit from an improving situation in Iraq because voters would then shift their attention to domestic issues like healthcare and education where Dems are presumed to have an edge over the GOP.
Instead, maybe Klein should have written "Does the GOP Need a Recession?" See, I keep wondering why front-runner Hillary Clinton doesn't have a massive lead in the polls over Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and the others Republican hopefuls. Indeed, a new Zogby poll has her losing to all the major Republican candidates by 3 to 5 percentage points.
Then I started looking at those historical election results. I mean, 2008 could be an odd year. Not only is there no incumbent president or vice president running—the first time since 1952—but there may be a recession during the election year. That has not happened since 1920. In fact, that was the only time this past century when both those circumstances held sway.
Now the 1920 election was a massive landslide for the out-of-power party. Republican Warren Harding defeated Democrat James Cox by 60 to 34 percent. But a single election since the turn of the 20th century hardly seems like much of a sample. Plus, that recession was more like a mini-depression.
So maybe, just maybe, the slumping economy will turn the focus from economic insecurity and worker angst to how we can get the economy moving again. In that case, policy ideas like taxing the rich and universal healthcare might seem less on point than talk of tax cuts. Likewise, candidates with experience fixing malfunctioning entities—such as New York City (Giuliani) or the Salt Lake City Olympic Games (Romney)—might have an edge over a candidate who tried fixing a big problem—healthcare (Clinton)—and failed.
Maybe a recession might be the perfect environment for a Mr. Fix-It candidate.