- Historic Sites
The Fifty Biggest Changes In The Last Fifty Years
February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
Who would have predicted it in 1954? Just ten years before, in 1944, the Empire State had had a monopoly on presidential candidates: Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey were New York governors who rose to the top in part because of their state’s extraordinary political power. It had had the nation’s largest congressional delegation (and thus the most electoral votes), and a New York governor ran for President in every election from 1928 to 1948.
But no New Yorker has won a major-party presidential nomination since Dewey in 1948. The Empire State is now the third most populous state, and its delegation in the House has shrunk from 43 to 29. New York now has fewer electoral votes than it had in 1884 (when its 36 electoral votes were decisive in electing Grover Cleveland, another New York governor who made good). While New York remains a place candidates visit to collect campaign contributions, it is no longer the state parties look to for national leaders. The state’s junior senator may yet reverse this trend, but then again, Hillary Clinton is something of a new-comer to New York.
This change obviously is not unrelated to the two preceding ones. Reagan’s election in 1980, the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and the nation’s changing demographics have moved the nexus of national politics south and west. California, Texas, and Florida are the new electoral powerhouses, at the expense of New York and the industrial Midwest. Except for Michigan’s Gerald Ford, who was never elected in his own right, every occupant of the White House since Lyndon Johnson has come from the South or the West—even that Connecticut Yankee from Texas, George H. W. Bush.
The Washington that Harry Truman left in 1953 was a fraternity. The Washington presided over by George W. Bush includes a woman as National Security Advisor; women Supreme Court justices; cabinet members and members of Congress; a female Minority Leader in the House; and innumerable woman lobbyists, staff members, commentators, and reporters. And out in the provinces, women serve in unprecedented numbers as governors, mayors, state legislators, and local officials, positions that were, by and large, males-only in 1954. While many feminists would argue that real power remains in male hands—no woman has yet won national office or been appointed Chief Justice of the United States—there is no denying that women today have far more power and influence in politics than they did 50 years ago.
Yes, money has always had an important place in American politics. Yes, political candidates have always been dependent on the generosity of, er, public-spirited citizens with expendable incomes. But has money ever been more decisive than it is today, at all levels of politics? Probably not. Forget the extraordinary sums raised and spent on national campaigns, and consider the sums involved in local races. In New Jersey, for example, both parties raised and spent about $48 million in the state’s off-year legislative elections in 2003; 20 years ago, they spent about $8 million on state legislative elections. In one state senate race, the winning candidate spent $212 per vote, according to the Star-Ledger . The importance of money manifests itself not only in election results but in the political culture. Officeholders and candidates, including the President, now spend far more time soliciting contributions than they did 50 or even 10 years ago. Between shaking contributors’ hands and wolfing down rubber chicken, does anybody have time to think any more?
As this magazine noted nearly four years ago, national political conventions still serve a useful purpose. They are where delegates meet one another, they are where ambitious local candidates make their presence known to the national press, they are where a speech can make or break a career. An improperly managed convention can still lead to disaster. And, let’s remember, the convention is where a party’s vice-presidential nominee is introduced to the public.
That said, the convention just isn’t the same and hasn’t been since the 1950s. Nominees are selected not in back rooms, not on the convention floor, but in the presidential primaries. And even that is not entirely true. The nominee generally is chosen by late March, in a process that makes later primaries increasingly irrelevant. Gone are the days when Dwight Eisenhower could announce his candidacy in the very year he would stand for election, 1952. When Wesley Clark announced his presidential candidacy in the fall of 2003, most observers believed he was joining the fray far too late. Candidates need time to build organizations to contest the fateful early primaries.
Many political journalists still yearn for the days of dramatic conventions, and every four years somebody will write a speculative piece about a brokered convention. (Have you read about the scenario by which Hillary Clinton becomes this year’s Democratic nominee without having entered the primaries?) It never happens. And it never will again.