The best news for Hillary Rodham Clinton this week wasn't the mostly positive reviews for her memoir Hard Choices. It was the hard fall taken by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor when he was ousted by a tea-party challenger who denounced him as insufficiently conservative, particularly on immigration.
The Virginia Republican's defeat virtually extinguishes the already flickering chances that House Republicans will pass immigration reform before the 2014 election, and even dims the odds that the chamber will take action before 2016. And that significantly improves prospects in the next presidential election for Clinton, or any other Democrat.
Cantor's defeat captures the divergence of interests between congressional Republicans and the strategists, donors, and activists in the GOP's presidential wing. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012 by more than 5 million votes, despite winning 59 percent of whites—a greater percentage than voted for Ronald Reagan during his 1980 landslide—many GOP thinkers concluded that the party was unlikely to recapture the White House without gaining ground with minorities, particularly Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Republicans in this camp believe that passing immigration reform is the threshold the GOP must cross before these growing communities will consider the party's positions on anything else.
But those arguments have not moved most congressional Republicans, especially those in the House. The House GOP has essentially barricaded itself against the demographic trends that have helped Democrats win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections: 80 percent of House Republicans represent districts in which the white share of the population exceeds the national average. Cantor was one.
Polls consistently show that even most Republican partisans believe that immigrants here illegally should be allowed to stay—and either become citizens or, at least, work openly. But many Republican legislators believe that, as with gun control, those who oppose legalization vote on the issue more consistently than those who support it, especially in the conservative districts they mostly represent. That conviction is certain to be cemented by Cantor's loss to the underfunded Dave Brat, who lashed him for championing "amnesty," despite Cantor's support for only very limited reforms.
As in 2012—when Romney made a crippling commitment to "self-deportation" for those in the country illegally— GOP presidential candidates could be pulled to the right if immigration reform isn't resolved legislatively before the 2016 primaries. Cantor's loss may also prompt Obama to take more aggressive executive action to provide relief for undocumented immigrants. Republican hopefuls will feel enormous pressure to oppose that, as well.
Both of those developments would limit the GOP's ability to improve its 2016 performance among minorities, who have provided Democrats almost exactly four-fifths of their votes in all but one presidential election since 1976. And that would mean the GOP could recapture the White House only if it expands its margins among whites or increases that group's share of the vote by raising turnout.
Neither would be easy. The white share of the vote has decreased in every presidential election since 1980 except one, and minority-population growth virtually ensures its continued decline. Disenchantment with Obama might offer the GOP a somewhat better chance of increasing its margin with whites. Polls show that only about one-fourth of whites or fewer believe they have benefited from either Obama's economic agenda or his health care plan. And the stubbornly slow economic recovery—plus a series of government missteps, including the health care rollout—have moved white voters, in particular, from receptivity toward greater federal activism after George W. Bush's presidency toward a renewed skepticism. "Obama has a taken a majority viewpoint that we need a more aggressive government … and gone 180 degrees in the other direction," says GOP pollster Glen Bolger.
Which returns us to Hillary Clinton. If she runs, the resurfacing doubts about Washington, particularly among whites, would present her with a problem similar to Bill Clinton's in 1992: formulating an agenda that convinces skeptical voters they will benefit from more government activism, rather than less—as Republicans will argue. But even so, it's a stiff bet for Republicans to gamble 2016 on holding Clinton below the 39 percent of whites Obama carried in 2012.
In that meager showing, Obama lost white women by 14 percentage points, the biggest deficit for any Democrat since Reagan's second landslide in 1984. As the first female presidential nominee, Clinton might easily do better, perhaps much better. And because Obama already fell so far with white men, there might not be much further for her to fall. Simultaneously, the power of the Clinton name equips her to continue generating lopsided margins with minority voters—unless Republicans find ways to reach them.
Even if most Americans remain skeptical of activist government after Obama's presidency, Clinton in all these ways would remain uniquely positioned to exploit the GOP's difficulties with attracting voters beyond its older, white, nonurban base. Yet Cantor's defeat demonstrates again how much of that base will fiercely resist policies that might build a broader coalition. "Elections are a combination of message and math," acknowledges Bolger. "The message is a little more difficult for Clinton, and the math is a little bit easier." That's especially true after the Virginia earthquake.
This article appears in the June 14, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Advantage, Clinton.