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Republicans, fear the pendulum

by Caleb Talley

Beware; the pendulum swingeth.

It’s been an interesting week in politics. (When hasn’t it?) Tillerson got the boot. A GOP committee botched their Russia report rollout. The Arkansas Legislature kicked off a special session.

But there’s one major takeaway. In a Pennsylvania special election on Tuesday, Democrat Conor Lamb beat Trump-backed Republican Rick Saccone – a man who called himself “Trump before Trump” – in a district that the president won by 20 percent in 2016.

Barring a recount miracle (won’t happen), Lamb will be the first Democrat to take that U.S. House seat in years.

Democrats are celebrating, believing they have finally found the playbook for winning in Trump country. They’re touting a newfound ability to field candidates that actually line up with their constituency. Lamb is a pro-tariff, pro-gun former Marine who is “personally opposed” to abortion.

Republicans, having spent upwards of $10 million to get Saccone elected, have already thrown their candidate under the bus. Publically, they’re making excuses. Privately, they’re scratching their heads, wondering if Saccone was just that bad of a politician.

Perhaps both parties are right. Or perhaps they’re both wrong. Perhaps the dreaded pendulum is making an early appearance.

To explain, I’ll fast-forward to 2016…

Prior to Trump’s election night victory, I was certain Hillary Clinton would be the next president – as did most people. It wasn’t that I was pulling for her (hell, I didn’t vote for either of them), but Trump was just that bad. She would just waltz into the White House without breaking a sweat, I thought.

Boy, was I wrong. I, and everybody who makes their living on knowing, was wrong.

But there was one man who got it right. It wasn’t blowhards Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. It was a well-educated, distinguished professor of political science at Stony Brook University, Helmut Norpoth – who also takes the prize for most interesting name. He didn’t use random anecdotes to make his prediction; he used mathematical and historical indicators based on electoral cycle patterns.

He saw a Trump victory coming months earlier, before most Trump supporters could truthfully say they knew how the pieces would come together. His formula has correctly predicted the winner of every presidential election since 1912, except one. Even the best pollsters would kill for that level of accuracy.

But Norpoth doesn’t poll. He doesn’t do cold calls, and he doesn’t tabulate likely voters. He looks at the political performances of a candidate in their own party, paired with a historical pattern of voting that makes it less likely for an incumbent party to hold the presidency after two terms.

In essence, he watches the pendulum.

Like the pendulum bob of an old grandfather clock, the political pendulum constantly swings from left to right. Right to left. Left to right. It is, and has been for more than 160 years, the gravity of our basic two-party system.

The 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution limited the time of service for an American president to two terms. There is no limit, however, on how many terms a political party may hold the highest office. The gravity of our political pendulum seemingly solves that problem.

Don’t take my word for it. Look to history. Since 1851, the possession of power has swung consistently and quite evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Left to right. Right to left. Within just the last 100 years – the same time frame Norpoth has applied his system to – only three times has a party held office for more than two terms: the 1920’s Republican response to Woodrow Wilson’s progressive era, the FDR/Great Depression/World War II era and the Reagan-led Cold War era.

What seems to hold true in every other case, and even in the three consecutive GOP victories of the 1920s, is that every time the pendulum makes its way all the way to one side, it is bound to make its way right back to the other. It’s political physics.

We may like to think that our country is made up of either conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans. In reality, the majority of our nation is made up of people whose political preferences change with the direction of the wind – true “swing” voters. When one party doesn’t fulfill their great expectations in the span of four to eight years, they’re on to the next, perpetually unsatisfied. There is no greater example of this than the fact that a number of Trump voters in 2016 cast their ballots for Barack Obama in 2008.

The pendulum is always in motion. And when it’s pulled with a vengeance in one direction, it has no choice but to fly just as forcibly towards the other side once it is released. Modern-day political history is full of examples.

The pendulum swung to the left for Democrats in the mid-to-late 1970s, followed by a swing back to the right for Republicans in the 1980s. In the 1990s, we saw the pendulum swing back to the left for Clinton, and then back to the right for Bush in 2000.

The harder the pendulum swings in one direction, the more energy the opposite force, or opposing party, gains.  And its creeping motion can be identified by gains made in midterm elections.

Republicans responded to Clinton’s administration by taking back Congress in 1994, gaining even more seats in 1996, signaling Bush’s victory in 2000. After Bush pulled America to the right, Democrats came back for revenge in 2006, taking back Congress and signaling Obama’s easy victory in 2008.

Under Obama’s liberal progressive administration, the United States has spent eight years being drawn even further to the left than under any other Democrat in decades. In doing so, he all but assured that the pendulum would swing back forcefully to the right.

The clues were there. Republicans stormed back in 2010, stealing 64 seats in the House. In 2014, they picked up an astounding nine seats to take the Senate. In hindsight, Trump’s victory made sense.

And just as I feared would happen after his election, Trump has tossed the pendulum so far to the right that it’s taken out a few respectable figures in the process – Tillerson, Priebus, Cohn, McCabe, Comey, etc., and soon to be McMasters, Sessions and maybe Kelly.

But even in political physics, the pendulum can only go so far before gravity brings it back around. And we could be witnessing that by the shift in a number of state and US congressional seats across the country.

Since Trump’s 2016 victory, Democrats have taken nearly 40 Republican-held positions in governors’ mansions, state capitols and the US Congress – most notably the surprise election of a liberal Democrat senator in deep red Alabama. And, of course, Lamb’s victory on Tuesday. Both high-profile congressional seats had belonged to Republicans for years.

We can’t discount the fact that most presidents lose some seats in the House and sometimes Senate during their first midterms. Obama lost a ton in response to his push for Obamacare. Regardless, Republicans are sure to face hurricane-force winds heading into this fall’s midterm election.

I’d wager a couple of Arkansas lawmakers, at the state and federal level, are at risk of running into that headwind created by the swing of the pendulum.


In Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMP by way of the Arkansas Delta, where he called balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. He can be contacted by email at ctalley@aymag.com. Read more Cash & Candor here

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