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Why the Democrats Are Favored to Win in November ... Unless They Blow It

With less than a fortnight before the US mid-term elections, pollsters still think the outcome too close to call - just as they did two years ago. The parties routinely ran neck-and-neck in the late 19th century too, which is why Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's political seer, studies the 1890s. Mr Rove believes his patron owns a coalition like the one that swept William McKinley into office in 1896 and again in 1900. But runes in the demographic sand suggest instead Mr Bush is likely to emulate an earlier, and less successful, 1890s Republican: Benjamin Harrison.

Blind to secular trends that favored the opposition, Harrison's Republicans went proudly into their mid-term elections and lost - and lost again at the presidential election two years later. But although it applies chiefly to Mr Bush, the Harrison comparison is also a cautionary tale for Democrats. Like Mr Bush, Harrison lost the popular vote but won in the electoral college, scraping through to the presidency in 1888. Harrison nevertheless assumed the mandate of heaven, claiming "Providence has given us the victory". His political ally Matthew Quay - an expert on shady counting of close votes - snorted: "Think of the man: he ought to know Providence hadn't a damn thing to do with it."

As with Mr Bush, Harrison's public piety accompanied a personal commitment to private enterprise. Harrison surrounded himself with chief executives and his advisers became known as "the businessmen's cabinet".

Working with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, Harrison crafted a budget package that used tariffs to subsidize American manufacturing interests, particularly steel. A federal surplus that had accrued under the preceding Democratic administration swiftly turned to deficit. Money leached from the Treasury, silting up in the pockets of the businessmen who had used money like water to put Republicans in Washington.

Much as Mr Rove today hopes protective tariffs for the steel industry and other choice fillips will help his party, Harrison expected his selective generosity would aid Republicans at the polls. It did not, because the Republicans' busy appropriation of government resources while cheerfully declining to address increasing economic inequality alienated vast and growing swathes of the electorate. In the 1890 elections the Republicans saw their majority in the House overturned.

The two Republicans also share a fundamental irony of circumstance. In spite of their common air of reclaiming a rightful, though temporarily relinquished, legacy - Harrison's grandfather, like Mr Bush's father, had been president; both restored the White House to their party after a lone Democrat interrupted a string of Republicans in the leadership - both men took office at the glimmering inception of long-term trends favouring the Democrats.

Historically sustained by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Republicans benefit from voters whose religious outlook supports a businesslike parsimony with public funds. Amid the mass migration and globalisation of the late 19th century, this population shrank relative to the growing concentrations of immigrant and ethnic minority Americans, who took up factory work and residence in cities.

While the Republican managerial class saw its standard of living rise, these working-class Americans saw little real increase in their wages. And this growing population of the discontented tended to vote Democrat. Joined by middle-class professionals whose distaste for Republican plutocracy pushed them to support economic regulation, the urban Democrats helped turf Harrison out in 1892, and later put Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt in the presidency on platforms of opposition to Republican "business as usual".

Similar trends prevail today. The great cities of the country, with the greatest increase of population and the greatest representation in government, tend to vote Democrat. So do the votes of ethnic minorities and professionals. These groups want regulation of business and a strong government commitment to social services.

Yet the election remains close and today's Democrats stand to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They could fumble the fruits of success just as Cleveland did a century ago. The Democrats followed Cleveland's 1892 victory with an 1896 loss to Mr Rove's beloved McKinley Republicans. And it was not because Cleveland was concupiscent like Bill Clinton and a bore like Al Gore - though he was in fact both. It was because he professed economic conservatism, and lost key constituencies to a rebellious third party. To unify their coalition, Democrats must represent the public interest in regulating the market economy, rein in business and ensuring that money does indeed trickle down from the commanding heights. Cleveland refused to do it, and lost.

If today's Democrats wish now to capitalize on Mr Bush's Harrisonian bent, they must speak forcibly for their constituents, lest they lose some to Rovian machinations and others to the Greens, while themselves following Harrison and Cleveland into the historical wilderness of timid has-beens and never-weres.

This piece was first published in the Financial Times and is reprinted with permission of the author.