Some things are out of our control
Alan Baron, who was a wise and witty man of politics, used to tell this true story to remind those who worked in politics like he did that in some election years, the outcome is determined by events and forces completely beyond any candidate’s or her campaign’s control.
As a 21-year-old, Baron was managing in his heavily Republican hometown of Sioux City, a long-shot congressional campaign for an underfunded Democrat when Vincent Burke, the frankly sacrificial Democratic nominee for a solidly Republican state Senate seat, approached him with a request for $300. Burke wanted to rent a sound truck on which he would put signs endorsing all the Democratic candidates and drive around the county urging all within earshot to vote for incumbent Lyndon Johnson for president, Harold Hughes for governor, Stan Greigg for Congress and himself for state Senate. Baron, who doubted the persuasive effectiveness of a sound truck and did not have the $300, gently turned down Burke, who somewhere found the money, got the truck and drove it blaring throughout the county.
On Tuesday, as you may have figured, came a historic Democratic landslide In Iowa. Hughes cruised to the governorship. LBJ rolled to victory. In a major upset, congressional candidate Stan Greigg won, as did, to nearly everyone’s surprise, Burke, who explained his victory to Baron this way: “You see, kid. The truck. It worked.” Baron, keenly aware that the Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, had been an albatross to all Republican candidates and an unalloyed gift to all Democrats running, responded simply: “It’s a shame Adlai Stevenson” — (the former governor who had twice lost as Democratic nominee in landslides to Republican Dwight Eisenhower) — “didn’t know about the truck.”
Sometimes in election years, Baron understood, it makes little difference how brilliant — or how flawed — a campaign a candidate runs; the outcome is beyond his control. In 2018, there is one poll question that, frankly, terrifies Republican candidates. It is this: Which one of the following statements best describes your feelings toward the president?
A) Like him personally and approve of many of his policies.
B) Like him personally but disapprove of most policies.
C) Don’t like him personally but approve of many of his policies.
D) Don’t like him personally and disapprove of many of his policies.
It is a question that has been asked consistently about presidents from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama. Mostly, it turns out, American voters personally like the man in the White House. What may have doomed the Democrats’ failed challenges to Reagan was that almost 7 out of 10 voters personally liked the Gipper even though just a slim plurality approved of his policies.
The “like him personally” numbers for other chief executives were similarly impressive: Solid majorities of Americans continued to personally like both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton even when their administrations endured tough patches. For Obama and President George H. W. Bush, 3 out of 4 voters recorded themselves in the “like him personally” column.
Which brings us to GOP anxiety in this midterm, which, as always, will be a voter referendum on the voters’ judgment of the sitting president. In 2018, according to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, fewer than 3 out of 10 voters like President Donald Trump personally, while a supermajority of 7 out of 10 don’t like him personally, including a probably motivated majority of people who both do not like Trump personally and disapprove of many of his policies.
Alan Baron, if he were alive today, might assure nervous GOP candidates — as he learned from Vincent Burke in Sioux City in 1964 — that November results are, unfortunately, oft way beyond a candidate’s control.