Of the 14 presidential elections I remember anything of, the one that this one reminds me of is 1976. The reason was that that was the year a political realignment that had (in retrospect) begun a few years earlier kicked into high gear.
The five big factors causing the political shift were:
The Civil Rights Movement: Democratic party support alienated some Southern Whites and then the tactics and rhetoric were expanded not only to non-Black minorities such as Chicanos but to women and gays as well.
The Southern Strategy: The plan to offer disaffected Southern white democrats a new home in the Republicans only began in earnest sometime after 1968.
The end of the Vietnam War: The public was not overwhelingly against military involvement (the resistance seems larger now than it did at the time) but the final debacle of the fall of the South Vietnam to the North left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
Roe v. Wade The overturning of state regulations regarding abortion on iffy constitutional grounds gave birth to the mainstreaming of the cultural conservative movement and the entry of evangelicals into politics.
The Watergate Scandal: Let to the resignation of a sitting president, Richard Nixon. A first ever event that disoriented almost everyone.
The candidates were
Republicans: Gerald Ford, former unelected vice-president made president by resignation. His running mate was Bob Dole, rather than Nelson Rockefeller, the sitting Vice President. The time from December 1974 to January 1976 was the only time that both the president and Vice-president were unelected. Ford almost didn’t become the candidate as he won a close and bitter struggle against Ronald Reagan at the Republican convention.
Democrats: Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia. His running mate was Walter Mondale.
The Democrats at the time were the larger party but they were an ungainly mess of Southern conservative Whites, Northern and Southern Blacks and Northern progressive Whites of various types. They were in such a mess that they ended up broke in starting in 1972 staged humiliating national telethons where politicians and celebrities begged for money to pay the party’s massive debts.
The Republicans were smaller and more disciplined. But the previous eight years of Repulican presidency coincided with a particularly traumatic time for the country. They were surely to blame for some of the trauma but not all of it.
Gerald Ford was a competent enough administrator but he was limited in charisma and had an unfortunate habit of stumbling in public, which tended to make him an object of ridicule. His campaign was essentially…. more of what we’ve been having! He represented an establishment that many people were sick of. Even its supporters were more motivated by inertia and fear of a Democratic President than anything else.
Jimmy Carter by contrast was a rare Southern White liberal who seemed to offer a vision of racial healing (the “New South”) and a way to maybe hold his party together. His biggest message was: Things will be different.
Carter won the election in something less than a landslide (the results were essentially East vs West). Ford won every state west and north of Texas and Carter won the East except for a few Mid-Western states Virginia and most of New England.
As it turned out Carter was not a very effective president. As an outsider in Washington he didn’t know anyone so he brought other outsiders in with him who also didn’t know how to put together a cabinet or get legislation passed. He also had a tendency to micro-manage everything so that most of his term was bogged down in petty detail. He also completely mismanaged the revolutions in Iran which resulted in the US Embassy being invaded and staff held hostage.
By 1980 the diverse political elements had settled into a new configuration as Reagan easily beat Carter.
The Republicans was starting to acquire conservatives of different types and became the party of Neoliberal economics and Social Conservatism and aggressive foreign diplomacy (and small scale military involvement) as the more socially liberal Republicans were squeezed out of the power structures of the party unless they publicly converted to the party line on issues such as abortion.
The Democrats had no coherent message beyond opposing the Republicans and could only win the presidency in 1992 by out Neoliberaling the Republicans with a dash of progressive rhetoric thrown in.
That status quo of Republicans being economic neoliberals, social conservatives with an itch to meddle in other countries’ business and the Democrats mostly modeling themselvews as non-Republicans has lasted from 1980 until this year. Clinton is mostly continuing the anti-Republican strain of Democratic politics that she knows so well while Trump engaged in massive creative destruction of the Republican platform mostly ignoring traditional hotbutton issues in favor of a new National Populism. It remains to see what the Republicans do with this unique chance to reinvent themselves…..
The morale for this year?
It doesn’t matter much who wins today (though the way many are carrying on you’d think the world will end 15 minutes after their candidate loses). The President has limited powers and the realignment is just beginning. It will take at least four, maybe a few more years to see where the changes starting to take place now lead up to.