Each party emerged from the 2012 presidential election facing one overriding political test. So far, both are flunking.
For Republicans, the key question was whether a congressional caucus rooted in the nation’s most conservative areas could court the broader coalition the party needs to regain the presidency. For President Obama and his fellow Democrats, the issue was whether they could deliver better economic results—or at least formulate an agenda for growth that persuasively contrasted with the GOP’s. Nearly six months after the election, neither side can claim much progress.
The Republican Party, which has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, has an unmistakable need to broaden its national reach. In 2012, Mitt Romney captured only 206 Electoral College votes while winning a larger share of white voters than Ronald Reagan did in his 1980 landslide. And each of the key groups in Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant”—minorities, the millennial generation (ages 18-31), and college-educated white women—will likely make up a larger share of voters in 2016 than in 2012. In presidential elections, the possession arrow points toward Democrats: Until Republicans cut into the coalition of the ascendant they are unlikely to win the White House.
The GOP’s conundrum is that because most of its House or Senate members represent reliably conservative, and often preponderantly white, constituencies, few have a direct incentive to court those voters. Focused on their local politics, they are solidifying their party’s identification with policies that alienate the Democrats’ national coalition.
These forces were highlighted in the recent Senate vote blocking expanding background checks for gun purchases. Those checks have drawn overwhelming public support in opinion polls before and after the vote, and are especially popular with minorities and college-plus white women. Yet only four Senate Republicans supported them. Every GOP senator from a swing state that Obama and Romney seriously contested voted no.
Some analysts have argued that few voters will punish Republicans directly for that opposition. But rather than parsing each issue, many voters aggregate a candidate’s views to reach a cumulative judgment about whether he or she shares their basic values. That dynamic is especially powerful in the presidential election.
The GOP’s near-lockstep rejection of expanded background checks on gun sales will provide Democrats another brick in a wall that includes widespread Republican opposition to gay marriage, abortion, no-cost contraception in health insurance, and funding for Planned Parenthood. All of these positions stamp the GOP as primarily representing the cultural values of rural, heavily evangelical, and largely white heartland states—and not the prevailing beliefs of more diverse, cosmopolitan, and suburban states. Republicans must flip some of the latter to win the White House. Compounding the risk, the gun vote suggests that Republicans from conservative constituencies see little need to concede to overall public opinion on issues opposed by their party’s base. If they apply that logic to the impending immigration debate, the reform that GOP strategists consider indispensable to attracting more minorities in 2016 could face crippling resistance. The risk is greatest in the House, where nearly four-fifths of Republicans represent districts in which whites exceed their national share of the voting-age population.
The GOP’s struggle to culturally connect with the coalition of the ascendant will help Democrats sustain it. But the president’s inability to deliver better economic outcomes presents a powerful counterforce. The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, released last week, offered a keening wail of economic anxiety and discontent. About three-fifths of those polled said they feared falling into a lower economic class, and fewer than one-fourth considered it “very realistic” that they could meet such basic financial goals as saving for retirement or their children’s college education. Among whites, only 21 percent—tied for the lowest share ever—said Obama’s agenda was increasing opportunity for people like them.
By solid margins, the key groups in Obama’s coalition still said they preferred him to the GOP on economic issues. But college-educated white women expressed dim opinions of his economic performance (only 28 percent thought his agenda would increase their opportunities), and minorities and millennials were much more likely than others to describe their economic situation as poor or only fair. Last fall, Obama won the support of just over seven in 10 Hispanics, but roughly as many in the new poll described their economic standing in those grim terms.
Although the confrontations over guns and immigration that Obama has pressed create cultural hurdles for the GOP, they may also prompt voters to conclude, as they did in his first two years, that he is focusing on priorities other than their economic concerns. And even when Obama has addressed the economy, the continuing stalemate over deficit reduction has overshadowed his proposals to promote growth through public investments—which are, in any case, relatively modest. If growth remains lackluster, Democrats in 2014 and 2016 could still run effectively on cultural affinity and against a GOP economic alternative likely centered on tax and spending cuts. But Democrats can never be entirely secure about their hold on voters who see neither economic gains nor a clear plan to deliver them.