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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Presidential votes betray our division

Tight races since Reagan show how hard it is for the U.S. to rally around one leader.

President Reagan and his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale,

President Reagan and his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, at the second presidential debate in Kansas City. Photo Credit: Bettmann Archive/Bettmann

Thirty-five years ago, a sitting president sought a second term and, on Election Day, accomplished something that would be impossible now. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won re-election by a landslide. He triumphed in every state except Democratic opponent Walter Mondale’s home, Minnesota, winning the popular vote by 18.2 percent.

Reagan won New York and Massachusetts, and Georgia and Alabama, too. And he won 42 states by more than 10 percentage points.

Can you imagine a nation so rooted in common truths, so attuned to agreed-upon standards, that a candidate could win so resoundingly? Can you remember when this nation was such a place?

Reagan’s mandate helped him push for the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction bill in 1985. It also enabled Reagan to pass immigration reform in 1986. That was after his 10-point victory in 1980, still huge by today’s standards, helped Reagan pull off massive tax cuts and a landmark reform of Social Security that saved the program.

Before 1984, big presidential wins were common for both parties. In 1964, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater by 23 percentage points and took 44 states. And in 1972, Republican Richard Nixon beat George McGovern in 49 states and by 23 percentage points. That’s a 46-point popular-vote swing between parties in eight years, a staggering percentage of voters willing to look to either party for a leader.

But no American president since Reagan has won a mandate that even approaches the magnitude of his 1984 win. The largest margin of victory since then was Bill Clinton beating Bob Dole by 8 percentage points. Both of George W. Bush’s wins were squeakers, and he lost the popular vote in 2000, just as Donald Trump did in 2016. Barack Obama won by 7 points over John McCain and just 4 points over Mitt Romney.

Slowly, in fits and starts, consensus died and presidential politics for many became an automatic pull on the Republican or Democratic lever. A loyalty to identity and party developed that can feel like it has usurped loyalty to the nation. This fed, and was fed by, increasing extremism in both parties and ostracism of moderates, not least because many states and congressional districts have become more politically and demographically homogeneous thanks to population shifts and are increasingly dominated by one party.

On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, 20 Democratic presidential candidates split evenly between the nights will begin their contest in earnest for their party’s nomination. With that nomination will come likely victories in 19 states with 222 electoral votes, and likely losses in 24 states with 204 electoral votes.

All that will likely be up for grabs in the general election is the small percentage of undecided voters in seven states, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

There will likely be no landslide in 2020, and no broad mandate. And there will likely be no much-needed landmark legislation on the environment, Social Security, Medicare, immigration, infrastructure and the budget deficit in the four years that follow, because the negotiation and compromise they demand are political suicide in the current environment.

To be at its best, this nation needs (at least) two sane and responsible political parties worth listening to, and a nation of voters willing to hear them out. For the past 35 years, we’ve been moving away from that model, rather than toward it.

 Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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