The Circumstances of Big Landslides

John Ward

This cycle’s election is beginning to be cast as a “landslide” as the polling spread continues to grow. We look at the three biggest landslides in modern election history and how they were reflected in polling.


1964: Johnson vs. Goldwater

The concept of 2016’s Donald Trump as 1964’s Barry Goldwater has generated countless think-pieces throughout this election cycle. Predictably, The Daily Beast, the Atlantic, and The Hill have put forward the idea. But more surprisingly, even the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which once defended Paul Ryan’s Trump endorsement, made the link from Trump to Goldwater’s heavy loss. The parallels are obvious: like Trump, Goldwater “had many opponents in his own party” (Al Jazeera). Goldwater and Trump had similar conventions, in which those who warned against “fear, hate and terror” were “booed” and those suggesting “extremism” cheered (CNN). However, while there are many qualitative similarities between the Trump and Goldwater campaigns, quantitative comparisons are less equal.



Gallup, due to its age, has some of the best historical polling data. Gallup’s 1964 polling data, as reproduced above, does not show a tight race. Goldwater is only ever barely within 30 points of Johnson—certainly not an underestimate of Goldwater’s failure. In fact, Gallup overestimated the final spread, predicting a spread of 28 percentage points, much larger than the actual margin of victory of 22 percentage points.



This election cycle’s polling data (from Real Clear Politics, above) stands in stark contrast with that of the 1964 cycle. While Goldwater’s deficit was at best 28 percentage points, Trump’s has been, at worst, only around 10%. At best, Trump has been around even or even above Clinton in the polls. While the Goldwater campaign was easy to declare dead the summer before the election, only now, in mid-October, is a Clinton win nearing certainty, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts.


CNN’s Julian Zelizer points to “polarization of the electorate” as the reason behind Trump’s staying power relative to Goldwater—that there is now a floor on election performance as long as the candidate comes from one of the major parties. In Goldwater’s days, a Republican could lose large numbers of voters to a Democrat. In today’s more polarized electorate, a candidate can only skim a few voters off the other’s more consolidated voter pool.


1972: Nixon vs. McGovern

The 1972 Presidential Election had the second largest voter margin. Nixon managed to grasp 60.7% of the popular vote, while McGovern was only able to scrunge up a measly 37.5%. The goal is to understand this landslide victory for Nixon in hopes to compare and contrast the present day election. In order to do so, one must analyze the circumstances that surrounded the 1972 election.


In 1968, Nixon was elected to his first term of presidency. During his first term, Nixon was credited with bettering relations with China and the Soviet Union. Consequently, he had a fairly high approval rating going into the election in 1971. At the end of the year, he sat at an approval rating of roughly 50%. However, this level does not accurately reflect the 1972 landslide result that saw a 23 point margin in favor of Nixon. The spread only became significant during 1972. As one can see, Nixon’s approval in 1972 climbed to new heights. On November 13th, six days after the general election, his approval rating was 62%. Thus, this mirrors Nixon’s enormous victory. Although approval rate is not a perfect comparison to voter turnout, this proves to be a decent indicator.

It is hard to ignore that Nixon’s approval increases steadily from the beginning of July 1972. Even though, it was also increasing throughout the year, his rating does not decrease from this point until after the election. Coincidentally enough, McGovern was nominated that month. Therefore, there is a distinct possibility that Nixon’s landslide victory can be due to McGovern as a candidate, rather to the success of Nixon himself.


An aspect that can have some input into the outcome of the 1972 election is the primaries. From past data, it is evident that Nixon had the full support from his Republican party. He had an overwhelming 86.9% result from the primary popular vote. On the other hand, McGovern actually did not have the highest result from Democrat popular vote. Humphrey received 25.77% while McGovern received 25.35% of the votes. However, McGovern was able to receive a higher delegate count. Thus, he secured the Democratic Primary Nomination.


McGovern was the Democratic Nominee, but many influential Democrats did not support him. They felt as if McGovern’s delegate count did not accurately reflect the wishes of most Democratic voters. There was a “Stop McGovern” campaign that was spearheaded by Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. This was a crucial factor that lead to his loss as he lacked the full support from his party. This is is supported by his share of the popular vote during his primary campaign. Another example of his lack of support came when he was searching for a running mate. Powerful Democrats such as Senators Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Ed Muskie, Abe Ribicoff, Birch Bayh, and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey all declined to be on his ticket. Therefore, it can said, with some supporting evidence, that the chances were slim from the beginning for a 1972 Democrat President.


It is evident that a lack of support from one’s own party can have a deadly effect in November. Therefore, when one analyzes present day with Donald Trump losing some of the Republican support, is there a chance of a landslide victory in the 2016 election? I would argue under different circumstances, yes. However, due to the lack of a strong alternative, the 2016 election can still have a close margin.

Of course, if a 2016 candidate wants a landslide victory, one can simply break into the other party’s nomination committee headquarters as it seemed to work for Nixon.




1984: Reagan vs. Mondale

The third highest margin of victory for a presidential election, post WWII, was in 1984, Reagan vs Mondale when Reagan was running for his second term. In order to understand the election of 1984, we first need to look at the climate of the 70’s and the Presidential election of 1980.

In the late 70’s the economy was dealing with low growth; high inflation, interest rates and unemployment; and a persistent energy crisis. Another problem as the Iran hostage crisis, which showed Pres. Carter as an inept leader. A lot of people viewed the handling of the Iran hostage situation as the incompetence held during the Carter administration.


In the 1980 election, Carter faced stiff opposition from Sen. Ted Kennedy in the primaries and was one of the hardest fought primary race for an incumbent. Many have deemed Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaigns in ‘08 and ’16 as very similar to the 1980 primary race. On the other side of the ballot, Reagan had a relatively easy campaign except for George H. W. Bush, which some deemed as a possible candidate. The general election was between Reagan and Bush vs Carter and Mondale.

The two campaigns were pretty clear. Reagan ran a campaign based on optimism, reform and giving power back to states. Reagan wanted to restore the nation’s military strength, lowering taxes, and restore power back to the states. Carter ran a campaign mostly on attacking Reagan on his proposals and no real economic reform plans. Carter criticized Reagan for injecting ‘hate and racism’ by proposing words like states right. Many saw this as costing him the election.

In the polls leading up to the Presidency, Reagan was steadily behind Carter in most polls. It wasn’t until early August/September we see Reagan start to do well. It really wasn’t until late November that finally showed Reagan would be leading in the polls. A poll done two weeks before the election of 1,600 people showed the race to be dead even. How could pollsters miss this landslide of an election? It couldn’t be explained by voter turnout, it actually decreased in the 1980 election.


Ultimately Reagan won 44 States, 496 electoral votes and 50.7% of the popular vote while Carter won 6 States, 49 electoral votes and 41% of the popular vote. A big motivator for a lot of people was when Reagan asked them ‘If they were better off than they were four year ago’.


After fulfilling a majority of his promises to decrease unemployment and lowering the inflation rate and a strong economic recovery, Reagan was able to Win in a landslide over Mondale, who was Jimmy Carter’s VP. At the time of the election, 55% of people approved of the Reagan administration and people weren’t going to necessarily want to change it. However, many democrats saw this election as one of the final pushes for the party, so you ultimately saw Mondale start with a wide base, but that base shrunk and shrunk as we approached November.

Ultimately, Reagan won 525 electoral votes, 49 States, and 59% of the vote. Compared to Mondale’s 13 electoral votes, 1 State, and 40.6% of the vote. Reagan’s landslide victory was in-part due to his ability to revive the economy and Mondale’s association with the Carter administration.


The current election of 2016 is unlike any we have seen, with the two most unfavorable people ever running for President. However, there are eerie similarities between the election of 2016 and the election of 1980. The economy is stagnant, there’s low economic growth, and a lot of people having strong negative views towards Pres. Obama and Sec. Clinton’s foreign policy. However, the economic conditions of the 1980’s were a lot worse than they are today.

A lot of polls are coming out indicating Clinton is up by 4+ points, but there are some political pundits out there who claim that polls only look like that because Trump voters have gotten frustrated with the media and refuse to answer polls, even if there anonymous. We are probably looking at a situation in which, come November, the polls are going to start becoming closer and closer. If 2016 results in a Trump Presidency and he fulfills a majority of his promises and the economy is rebounding strong, we might witness another landslide victory for 2020.


One main connection that all of these previous landslides have in common is that they featured an incumbent president. Today’s election is different in that both candidates have never been president. The other common factor is that none of today’s candidates have a high approval rating like Nixon had when he won reelection, which might be an indicator that this year’s election will not feature a landslide win. The markets also seem to indicate that a landslide win will not happen since stock for a republican landslide is selling at 11 cents and stock for a Democratic landslide are selling at 31 cents.


The economy is recovering albeit slowly but the incumbent president Obama does continue to hold a positive approval rating, and current polls show that it is rising. It has been 18 years since we had last seen a landslide and the reason that we might not see one this year is simply the fact that the two parties have become staunchly polarized. During previous landslides the electorate was more fluid and there were many voters who voted across party lines. But today both parts of the electorate have become deeply entrenched and have shown little notion of voting across the aisle. Nate Silver has theorized what a Clinton landslide would look like but even he wrote that his “powers of imagination are limited” when he was writing about what a Clinton landslide would look like indicating that although trump is doing bad in the polls there is no way that he could lose by more than 16 points.


If you are disappointed that you will not get to witness a landslide you might have better luck when looking at Halloween costumes, reports indicate that Trump masks are outselling Hillary masks ‘by a landslide’.


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