It’s easy to understand why Republicans are so frustrated about this presidential election. Both history and a highly vulnerable presumptive Democratic nominee argue strongly that this should be a very winnable election for them. Yet things don’t look very rosy for the GOP right now.
There is a pendulum effect in presidential elections. After a party has held the White House for two terms, voters usually feel it’s time for a change. In 1960, after eight years under Republican Dwight Eisenhower, Democrat John Kennedy won. After eight years under Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Republican Richard Nixon won in 1968. After two terms under Nixon and Gerald Ford, Democrat Jimmy Carter won in 1976. After Bill Clinton’s eight years, George W. Bush won in 2000. After eight years under Bush, Barack Obama won in 2008.
All told, the pattern has held in five of six elections since World War II. The lone exception was 1988. After eight years under President Reagan, his vice president, George H.W. Bush, served one term before losing to Clinton. There is nothing magical about eight years, but voters tend to be ready to go in a different direction, to give the other side a chance. Maybe they don’t like the idea of one party staying in office too long.
Then there is Hillary Clinton, the almost-certain Democratic nominee (barring a Justice Department intervention). Her numbers were strong as recently as four years ago, with 58 percent of voters rating her positively in the December 2012 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, compared to 28 percent who viewed her negatively, a net of plus-30. In the NBC/WSJ’s most-recent poll, released last week, her positives were 20 points lower at 38 percent and her negatives had soared by 23 points to 51 percent, a net of minus-13. The movement wasn’t because of erosion among Democrats or rising Republican opposition, it was because independents had turned against her. In the December 2012 NBC/WSJ poll, her positive-negative score among independents was 52 to 30 percent (net plus-22), but now those numbers have flipped upside-down to 23 percent positive and 64 percent negative, a net minus-41.
Another way of looking at it is to compare how well Clinton and Bernie Sanders fare against various Republican contenders. In last week’s NBC/WSJ poll, Clinton led Donald Trump by 13 points, 51 to 38 percent, but Sanders was even further ahead, besting him by 18 points, 55 to 37 percent. Using the RealClearPolitics averages of all of the major national polls, Clinton beats Trump by 9.2 percentage points, 48.5 to 39.3 percent, while Sanders wallops him by 16.4 points, 54.2 to 37.8 percent. Sanders beats Ted Cruz by 8.7 points, 49.7 to 41 percent, while Clinton edges out Cruz by just 1.4 points, 46.4 to 45 percent. John Kasich beats Clinton by 5.2 percentage points, 48 to 42.8 percent, but Sanders slips by Kasich by six-tenths of a point, 45.3 to 44.7 percent (the margins in both Kasich matchups were statistically insignificant).
The point of this is not to trumpet Sanders’s strengths. Once a Republican explained to voters what it means to be a democratic socialist, Sanders’s numbers would likely look very different. Indeed, he might well become an even-less-electable Democratic nominee. But his comparative strength now shows what a Democrat without Clinton’s political baggage might do, particularly against several flawed GOP nominees.
President Obama’s job-approval ratings, on the other hand, are not bad at all: 49 percent approve and 46 percent disapprove in the new NBC/WSJ poll, a marked improvement over seven years of distinctly lackluster ratings. He seems to be defying the two-term curse.
It’s only slightly facetious to suggest that given the problems facing the parties and their leading candidates, a placebo nominee might well be doing better. While Ted Cruz is almost surely not the ideal Republican nominee, he runs better than Trump, with Kasich doing better than either of the other two. Indeed, just about any non-polarizing Republican nominee could do quite well against Clinton. A Trump nomination would seem to be the worst outcome for the GOP since he may be the only major Republican figure who can’t beat Clinton.
What is so unusual about this Republican race is that it isn’t about ideological extremism. In 1964, the Republican Party, then a center-right party, got carried away with Barry Goldwater and drove off a cliff, losing in a landslide to President Johnson. In 1972, the Democratic Party, in those days a center-left party, drove off the other cliff with George McGovern, and got thumped by President Nixon.
Now the GOP has become a right party and the Democrats a left party, but the Republicans seem inclined to choose a nominee with little discernible ideology. Speaking to The Washington Post editorial board this week, Trump painted himself as a noninterventionist and a protectionist, 180 degrees from where the GOP has stood in recent years. But Trump is running on anger, not philosophy, and sadly many Americans are in sympathy with his mood.
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