On the theme of Barack Obama as the candidate of optimism, John Judis’ perennial pessimism about his chances in a general election is a useful corrective. In this edition, he breaks new ground by comparing Obama not to McGovern or Carter, but to Al Smith’s doomed 1928 presidential run. Racism is supposed to be the 2008 version of the anti-Catholicism of 80 years ago.
Historical analogies are always tricky, but I think it’s very difficult to compare anything to the Democratic Party of the 1920s. Here’s Al Smith’s electoral map:
Bad stuff. But whatever the role of anti-Catholic sentiment in that race, Smith’s performance was really a huge improvement over what the Democrats did in 1924:
All the Democrats got in '24 was the "solid south" because they faced massive defections elsewhere to Robert LaFolette's Progressive Party. But the GOP secured a solid popular vote majority even in the face of a three-way race. That was terrible. But even without a Progressive in the field, the Democrats did terribly in 1920:
That year the Cox-Roosevelt ticket secured just 34 (!) percent of the popular vote, to 60 percent for Warren Harding. That was a blowout on the scale of Nixon in ’72 or Johnson in ’64. Judis acknowledges in his piece that no Democrat could have won in 1928, but you really need to look at the 1924 and 1920 races to appreciate how true that was. It’s not just that Smith couldn’t have won irrespective of his religion, but that the inter-war Democratic Party was absolutely hopeless in presidential politics. That’s a very different context from the one in which Barack Obama is currently operating.
Long story short, I think it’s true that Obama will be hurt in the fall by his race, but he’s also operating in an environment where Democrats have some margin for error. Al Smith, by contrast, was operating from a position of hopeless disadvantage that had nothing to do with his religion.