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Why Elections Are Won (or Lost)

Immediately after the midterm elections, new speculation began about what will happen in the 2012 presidential contest.

Keep your eyes on butter, guns and gall.

Butter is the economy. Guns connect to war. Gall is resentment and anger at the incumbent or one of the challengers. Any one factor or combination of factors sways an election.

In the midterms, Democrats suffered because voters were frustrated about unemployment and the economic stall (butter). Voters were upset with President Obama’s arrogance in pushing his radical agenda while dismissing the country’s center-right preferences (gall). Domestic issues dominated this election. But in 2012, terrorism and whatever happens in the war in Afghanistan (guns) will likely be major issues.

In the 2008 presidential race, Obama and the Democrats won big because of gall about the financial crisis (butter), exhaustion with the Iraq War (guns) and even more gall about, first, President George W. Bush, and second, about John McCain’s lackluster campaigning.

Working backward, it’s the same pattern. In 2004, George W. Bush edged John Kerry by blunting growing gall over Bush’s handling of the economy (butter) and the Iraq War (guns) with the case that Bush was a stronger, more decisive leader regarding terrorism and the values of the country. Kerry’s elite hauteur caused a gall backlash against him. Galling as it may be to some, Kerry lost because he was too unlikable.

A variation on that happened in 2000. Al Gore blew what should have been an easy win. Term-limited President Clinton wasn’t in a major war (and terrorism was, sadly, underestimated), so guns were silenced. The economy was humming -- the butter was there.

But on the cusp of victory, Gore sighed and acted pompously in his debates with George W. Bush, who was a mediocre communicator. However, Bush was far more likable (then) than Gore. To men, Gore was a blowhard they wouldn’t want to drink with. To women, he was a stiff they wouldn’t want to marry. Gore also lost votes because he spurned Clinton’s help in campaigning. Galling.

In 1996, Clinton held all the aces against Bob Dole: a buttery economy, a relatively peaceful world (guns) and Clinton’s ingratiating slickness versus Dole’s desperate ranting (galling).

In the prelude to the 1992 election, President George H.W. Bush had guns blazing and a record-high 89% approval rating because of the popularity of the Gulf War victory. But that approval rating melted as the economy melted (butter) and Clinton’s campaign scoffed that “It’s the economy, stupid.” Bush was further hurt by gall when The New York Times falsely reported that Bush was “astonished” to see a demonstration of a supermarket scanner. Clinton seized upon this as another example of Bush being “out of touch” with the lives of everyday people (especially the middle class). Bush didn’t help himself when, in a debate with Clinton and third party spoiler Ross Perot, Bush looked at his watch as if he couldn’t wait to get it over with. Leading up to the election, Bush’s approval rating dropped to a lethal 34%. Butter and gall did him in although, like many presidents, Bush’s approval rating bounced back after he was out of office.

Bush the elder beat Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988 not only because term-limited President Reagan took good care of both butter and guns, but also because Dukakis -- like Gore and Kerry -- was galling: an arrogant prig, when campaigning and in the debates.

Reagan beat former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984 with a revived economy (butter), a restored military (guns), and by evaporating galling concerns about his own mental sharpness with a terrific joke about his age in his second debate with Mondale.

Rancid butter defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980. Under his presidency, the “misery index” (unemployment plus inflation) reached a record average high of 20.27% (nearly doubling the number under President Nixon, who resigned because of the gall about Watergate). Guns also shot down Carter as he got walked over by Communists and tyrants worldwide, culminating in the galling crisis when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after militants and students took over the American Embassy in Iran. Carter’s secret U.S. military rescue attempt failed miserably -- a double whammy of guns and gall. And Reagan’s sunny optimism only highlighted Carter’s dour (and galling) pessimism.

Without going any further back in history, it is certain that some combination of butter, guns and gall will lead to either defeat or victory for President Obama in 2012 and the same for his Republican (and third party?) rivals.

Communications consultant Jon Kraushar is at www.jonkraushar.net.

Communications consultant Jon Kraushar is at www.jonkraushar.net. He is a consultant to corporate and political leaders including Steve Forbes.