The 2008 presidential election was freighted with a sense of history. On the Democratic side, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton faced off to be the first: the first black candidate or the first woman candidate to top a national ticket. The Republican side lacked that momentousness but would also have made history. John McCain, at 72, would have been the oldest person to assume the presidency, while Sarah Palin would have been the first woman to hold the vice-presidency.
2012 can’t compete with the last election’s epic scale. But the candidates are making history in their own ways, and in the process providing key insights to the changing nature of America politics. Three for the record books:
The record maker: The first GOP ticket without a Protestant candidate. Since its inception the Republican Party has been a stronghold of Protestantism. The Democrats occasionally ran a Catholic or Jewish candidate (Al Smith in 1928, John Kennedy in 1960, Joe Lieberman in 2000, Joe Biden in 2008) but not the GOP. With a Mormon in the top spot and a Catholic as his running mate, Romney-Ryan has ended that 158-year streak.
What it tells us: Religious groups have quite a lot of power in the U.S., but these days ideology – conservative or liberal – matters more than denomination. Paul Ryan may not be an evangelical Protestant, but his conservative Catholicism suits the religious Right just fine. It’s possible some evangelical voters will stay home on Election Day – we’ll have to wait until November to see – but the party is betting their dislike of Barack Obama will outweigh any distaste for Mormonism or Catholicism.
The record maker: The first time since 1956 without a Sunbelt nominee. The Sunbelt stretches across the southern third of America from South Carolina to San Francisco. Blending Deep South social conservatism with Wild West libertarianism, the region has dominated American politics since the 1960s. Politicians representing Sunbelt states won every presidential election between 1964 and 2004, a streak Barack Obama ended with his 2008 victory. With the Arizonan John McCain, the region still had someone in the running. Not this year: Obama represents Illinois and Romney Massachusetts (and their running mates come from Delaware and Wisconsin).
What it tells us: It may be lights-out for the Sunbelt in American politics. The New York Times pegs the change to two developments: increasing poverty in the region and the rise of a Latino voting base. Those factors would weaken the region’s conservative identity and thus the influence of the Republican Party. Meanwhile the Democrats have been pulling presidential candidates increasingly from the urban Northeast and Midwest. The open question: does this portend the rise of a new region, or the decline of place in American politics?
The record maker: The first time since the 1940s that neither nominee has served in the military. George Washington was a general before he was president, and even led troops into battle while in office – the only sitting president ever to do so. About three-quarters of American presidents served in the military prior to taking office. Thanks to the World Wars and Vietnam, every presidential race since 1944 has had at least one veteran in the running.
What it tells us: The United States may keep going to war – even on occasion officially declaring it – but the country won’t activate the draft unless something truly cataclysmic happens. With the end of the draft has come the end of broad-based military service. The partisan politicisation of military service (in the 1990s with Bill Clinton and in the 2000s with George W. Bush and John Kerry) has also taken away some of the advantages veteran status once conferred. Given those factors, we’ll still see veterans on national tickets but far less frequently.