TwentySixteen: Against the Grain

Republicans Hold the Edge in the 2016 Presidential Race

If the party doesn’t split in two, the eventual GOP nominee should be favored to defeat Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton greets supporters after speaking at a town hall meeting in Clinton, Iowa on Sunday.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 23, 2015, 8 p.m.

Throughout the cam­paign sea­son, the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom has been that Demo­crats hold the ad­vant­age in win­ning the White House in 2016. That’s the view of num­ber-crunch­er Nate Sil­ver, who pro­jec­ted this month that Demo­crats have a “slight edge” at this early stage. It’s the con­sensus of the bet­ting mar­kets, which cur­rently show Demo­crats with much great­er odds than Re­pub­lic­ans of elect­ing the next pres­id­ent in 2016. It’s the over­all me­dia con­sensus, which views the chaot­ic, Don­ald Trump-dom­in­ated GOP field as not ready for prime time. And it’s all wrong.

Nearly every fun­da­ment­al meas­ure—with the not­able ex­cep­tion of the coun­try’s demo­graph­ic shifts—fa­vors the Re­pub­lic­ans in 2016. The pub­lic over­whelm­ingly be­lieves the coun­try is headed in the wrong dir­ec­tion (23/69, a his­tor­ic low in Bloomberg’s na­tion­al poll). Pres­id­ent Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ing has been con­sist­ently un­der­wa­ter, with the op­pos­i­tion in­tensely re­ject­ing his policies. Any eco­nom­ic growth has been un­even, with more Amer­ic­ans pess­im­ist­ic than op­tim­ist­ic about the fu­ture. The pub­lic’s nat­ur­al de­sire for change after eight years of Demo­crats in the White House be­ne­fits the op­pos­i­tion. Mean­while, the party’s likely stand­ard-bear­er has been saddled with weak fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings of her own, with her email scan­dal drag­ging down her trust­wor­thi­ness in the minds of voters. This is not the en­vir­on­ment in which the party in power typ­ic­ally pre­vails.

That was all true even be­fore the ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Par­is rat­cheted up na­tion­al se­cur­ity as a dom­in­ant is­sue head­ing in­to the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Obama, who dis­missed IS­IS ter­ror­ists this week as “a bunch of killers with good so­cial me­dia,” is badly out of step with Amer­ic­an pub­lic opin­ion on the cru­cial is­sue. This week’s ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey showed 59 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve the U.S. is “at war with rad­ic­al Is­lam”—a phrase most Demo­crats res­ist us­ing. A siz­able 60 per­cent ma­jor­ity sup­ports send­ing ground troops in­to Syr­ia and Ir­aq to fight IS­IS. Even on the is­sue of hous­ing Syr­i­an refugees, on which lead­ing Demo­crats have ral­lied be­hind the pres­id­ent, polls show a clear ma­jor­ity of voters—along with about one-third of the House Demo­crat­ic caucus—now op­pose such meas­ures.

For Re­pub­lic­ans and in­de­pend­ents, na­tion­al se­cur­ity has been a first-tier is­sue since the IS­IS be­head­ings of Amer­ic­an journ­al­ists in Syr­ia last sum­mer. But for Demo­crats, the is­sue lagged as a sec­ond­ary one, even be­hind cli­mate change—a point Bernie Sanders con­tin­ued to make after the Par­is at­tacks. Hil­lary Clin­ton’s ex­per­i­ence in for­eign policy is an as­set, and she show­cased her smarts—and dif­fer­ences with the pres­id­ent’s view of IS­IS and ur­gency of the ter­ror­ist threat—at a Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions speech last week. But she’ll be saddled by the re­cord of the ad­min­is­tra­tion she served, un­der which IS­IS meta­stas­ized as a threat. If ex­per­i­ence was the most im­port­ant factor in today’s polit­ics, Clin­ton might have a life­line. Re­pub­lic­ans, however, will have loads of ma­ter­i­al with which to ques­tion her for­eign policy judg­ment.

The Demo­crats’ hopes of hold­ing the White House rest on: a) re­mo­bil­iz­ing the Obama co­ali­tion of mil­len­ni­als, single wo­men, and non­white voters; and b) hop­ing that Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ate someone out­side the main­stream, like Don­ald Trump. In short: If the Re­pub­lic­an Party doesn’t split in two—which is a dis­tinct pos­sib­il­ity if Trump is either nom­in­ated or runs as a third-party can­did­ate—Re­pub­lic­ans have a clear ad­vant­age. In the last two midterm elec­tions, des­pite the di­vis­ive fights between the es­tab­lish­ment and tea-party wings of the GOP, Re­pub­lic­ans still won back the House and Sen­ate in de­cis­ive fash­ion.

The most re­cent round of polling il­lus­trates the emer­ging fun­da­ment­als. Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan Green­berg, who has been un­der­scor­ing the im­port­ance of turn­ing out the “rising Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate,” re­leased polling this month show­ing Clin­ton trail­ing Trump in Ohio, and only lead­ing him by one point in Col­or­ado and by two points in Flor­ida. Right now, Green­berg con­cluded, core ele­ments of the party’s base are not en­thused to vote in the up­com­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. With a more main­stream Re­pub­lic­an tested, it’s likely Clin­ton would be trail­ing in all those battle­grounds. The Mar­quette Law School poll, the gold stand­ard of polling in the Demo­crat­ic-friendly Badger State, showed Clin­ton trail­ing Marco Ru­bio by a point, 48 to 47 per­cent. Fox’s New Hamp­shire polling showed Clin­ton in a dead heat against most op­pon­ents, but trail­ing Ru­bio by sev­en points and Jeb Bush/John Kasich by three.

Na­tion­ally, Clin­ton badly trails most GOP rivals in the latest Quin­nipi­ac and Fox polls. (She trails Ru­bio by five in Quin­nipi­ac’s na­tion­al sur­vey and eight in the FOX poll.) In this month’s NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll, she’s tied with Ben Car­son and only nar­rowly leads Ru­bio and Bush. This, des­pite the dis­pro­por­tion­ate at­ten­tion to the GOP field’s chaos, from Trump’s out­rageous state­ments to the field’s right­ward march on im­mig­ra­tion. If Demo­crats are con­tent to dis­miss the polling trends as in­sig­ni­fic­ant, they’re whist­ling past the polit­ic­al grave­yard.

Even though Obama’s not on the bal­lot again, his pres­ence will dom­in­ate the tra­ject­ory of the 2016 elec­tion. If he con­tin­ues to use his fi­nal two years in of­fice to burn­ish a pro­gress­ive leg­acy even when his views run against the de­sires of the pub­lic, Clin­ton will bear the brunt of the back­lash. The pres­id­ent’s base-first strategy has po­lar­ized the coun­try to such a de­gree that it’s hard to see any of his de­tract­ors even con­sid­er­ing vot­ing for a Demo­crat in the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

The Obama the­ory of the race has long been that there’s a grow­ing lib­er­al core of voters in the coun­try, and the key to win­ning elec­tions is by mo­bil­iz­ing that di­verse base. Yet, as the midterm elec­tions in­dic­ated, that en­thu­si­asm was as much at­trib­ut­able to Obama’s per­son­al likab­il­ity as any ad­her­ence to a lib­er­al agenda. Can Clin­ton, whose per­son­al fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings are un­der­wa­ter, in­spire voters the same way as the pres­id­ent has? Count me as skep­tic­al.

Even in today’s po­lar­ized times, the most fa­tal­ist­ic polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists ac­know­ledge that about one-tenth of the elect­or­ate is still truly per­suad­able—an amount that makes the dif­fer­ence between a nail-biter and a blo­wout. These are the very voters who have drif­ted away from Demo­crats lately. Demo­crats have been cling­ing to the the­ory that they’re close to lock­ing down pres­id­en­tial elec­tions even though they’ve struggled migh­tily in the last two midterms. If Clin­ton loses and dis­proves the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, the in­tra-party re­crim­in­a­tions will be par­tic­u­larly ugly.

Most pun­dits are ex­pect­ing a very close pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. I’m not so sure. With ter­ror­ism on the march, rising fear of crime at home, grow­ing ra­cial po­lar­iz­a­tion, per­vas­ive eco­nom­ic anxi­ety, and a pres­id­ent de­tached from it all, the pieces are in play for a GOP land­slide. The only thing stop­ping Re­pub­lic­ans is them­selves.

The Comprehensive Supercut of Hillary Clinton Laughing Awkwardly with Reporters

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