Playing the Name Game for 2016

The key question is not who will run, but what the intrinsic value of Democratic and Republican nominations will be.

Vice President Bush meets with President Reagan to report on his recently completed trip to Europe. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
April 14, 2014, 3:51 p.m.

The most pop­u­lar par­lor game in Wash­ing­ton and among polit­ic­al afi­cion­ados across Amer­ica at the mo­ment is pon­der­ing who will run for pres­id­ent in 2016, who will be the fi­nal­ists for each nom­in­a­tion, and who will ul­ti­mately win on Nov. 8.

It’s al­ways a fun game to play, with an in­fin­ite num­ber of factors to be weighed and no one know­ing the ac­tu­al out­come for a very long time. But as much fun as it is, this hobby tends to ob­scure something more im­port­ant: the fun­da­ment­als. What will the in­her­ent value of a Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion be in 2016? And what is the in­trins­ic value of the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion?

We know from mod­ern his­tory that voters tend to opt for change after one party holds the White House for two full terms. Put­ting aside the Roosevelt-Tru­man era — which for polit­ic­al pur­poses was back when di­no­saurs roamed — voters have op­ted to keep a party in the pres­id­ency for 12 years only once. In 1988, after Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s second term, his vice pres­id­ent, George H.W. Bush, moved from Mas­sachu­setts Av­en­ue to Pennsylvania Av­en­ue.

Re­agan’s ap­prov­al rat­ing had been run­ning in the low fifties dur­ing the fall 1988 cam­paign. It dipped down to 51 per­cent in the last Gal­lup Poll be­fore Elec­tion Day, hav­ing mostly re­covered from his post-1986 midterm-elec­tion plunge fol­low­ing the dis­clos­ure of the Ir­an-Con­tra scan­dal. Shortly after Bush’s 1988 win, Re­agan’s ap­prov­al rat­ing shot up again to near pre­vi­ous high levels, and he left of­fice with a 63 per­cent Gal­lup ap­prov­al rat­ing (Re­agan’s all-time high was 68 per­cent, which he reached twice dur­ing his eight years in of­fice).

The con­clu­sion to be drawn here is that when a two-term pres­id­ent has an ap­prov­al rat­ing of 50 per­cent or high­er, the his­tor­ic pat­tern shat­ters; be­low that threshold, however, eight years has gen­er­ally been the lim­it of a party’s White House oc­cu­pancy since World War II. It is worth not­ing here that Obama’s weekly job-ap­prov­al rat­ings have been in the 40-to-44-per­cent range since Oc­to­ber. This doesn’t mean that an out­go­ing pres­id­ent with ap­prov­al num­bers be­low 50 per­cent couldn’t be suc­ceeded by a mem­ber of his own party, but the pro­cess does seem to be­come much more prob­lem­at­ic.

With the his­tor­ic re­cord in mind, the first rel­ev­ant ques­tion will thus be: What is the in­trins­ic value of the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion in 2016? This will likely be de­term­ined by where Pres­id­ent Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ings are and how people will be feel­ing then about his — and the Demo­crat­ic Party’s — sig­na­ture le­gis­lat­ive achieve­ment dur­ing his pres­id­ency, the Af­ford­able Care Act. Taken to­geth­er, these and po­ten­tially oth­er factors will help de­term­ine the ex­tent to which voters are open to giv­ing Demo­crats a third con­sec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial term, re­gard­less of who the nom­in­ee might be. If voters are really down on the Demo­crat­ic Party in 2016, that would likely cre­ate something of an un­der­tow for any nom­in­ee, wheth­er that is Hil­lary Clin­ton or someone else.

The second ques­tion I find my­self ask­ing is: What will the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion be worth? The in­her­ent value of the GOP nom­in­a­tion will be de­term­ined by such factors as the ex­tent to which Re­pub­lic­ans will have been able to chip away at their prob­lems with minor­ity, young, wo­men, and mod­er­ate voters. It will also be af­fected by wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans will have cast away some of their nearly self-de­struct­ive tend­en­cies ex­hib­ited in cer­tain re­cent U.S. Sen­ate nom­in­a­tions, and at sev­er­al points dur­ing the 2012 GOP pres­id­en­tial-nom­in­a­tion con­test.

If Re­pub­lic­ans re­peat some of their dis­mal per­form­ances from this past White House con­test — in which Mitt Rom­ney won just 6 per­cent of the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an vote, 26 per­cent of the Asi­an vote, and 27 per­cent of the Latino vote (the per­cent­ages of the GOP vote for Con­gress were al­most identic­al) — it will be im­possible for the party to take ad­vant­age of the his­tor­ic­al pat­tern that usu­ally ex­ists at the end of two terms. Rom­ney won 59 per­cent of the white vote and yet still lost the elec­tion by just un­der 4 per­cent­age points. There are no longer enough white voters to com­pensate for Re­pub­lic­ans get­ting bur­ied among minor­it­ies.

The same goes for age. Things could be very bleak for the GOP in 2016 if the nom­in­ee is get­ting only 36 per­cent of the vote of those ages 18 to 24, 38 per­cent of those 25 to 29, and 42 per­cent of those between 30 and 39 (all of those per­cent­ages are lower than what Obama re­ceived among any of the three older age co­horts in the exit poll). Also, keep in mind that pres­id­en­tial-year turnouts are his­tor­ic­ally more friendly to Demo­crats, just as midterm years are more fa­vor­able to the GOP.

To that point, giv­en that Demo­crats usu­ally win 90 per­cent of those voters who identi­fy with the Demo­crat­ic Party, just as Re­pub­lic­ans get 90 per­cent of those who per­son­ally align them­selves with Re­pub­lic­ans, the gap between the pro­por­tions that identi­fy with each party is crit­ic­al. Rom­ney car­ried the in­de­pend­ent vote by 5 points, yet lost the gen­er­al elec­tion by al­most 4 points. Sim­il­arly, Ken Cuc­cinelli, in last year’s Vir­gin­ia gubernat­ori­al con­test, won the in­de­pend­ent vote by 9 points, but lost over­all by just un­der 3 points. To the ex­tent that Re­pub­lic­ans fall be­hind in party iden­ti­fic­a­tion, win­ning in­de­pend­ents may not be enough. The value of the GOP nom­in­a­tion will be de­term­ined by how the party is per­ceived two years from now. The GOP can­not be seen as a party of, by, and for older white men.

So have fun with the “Who runs? Who is nom­in­ated?” game, but don’t for­get the fun­da­ment­als. They mat­ter.

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