It’s a safe bet that whoever emerges as the GOP presidential nominee will have trouble energizing a faction of the party’s loyalists in the general election. Donald Trump would be unacceptable to much of the party’s rank-and-file, Ted Cruz would disappoint Trump fans and establishment Republicans alike, and an outside “white knight” candidate would risk alienating the majority of GOP voters who cast ballots for one of the two front-runners.
But Hillary Clinton is facing a serious problem with her own party’s base in the ongoing primary against Bernie Sanders. She’s being soundly rejected by millennials, a core element of Barack Obama’s coalition, while generating only middling enthusiasm from Hispanics and African-Americans. Without Obama in the race, Clinton expected black voters to once again be a pillar of her support. And the more polite tone of the Democratic campaign has turned nastier in recent weeks, with Sanders calling Clinton “unqualified” to be president and Clinton’s husband rebuking African-American protesters on the campaign trail for being oblivious to the crime-fighting successes of his administration.
The numbers don’t lie. As my colleague Ron Brownstein noted, 71 percent of Democratic voters under the age of 30 have flocked to Sanders—even though it’s been clear for a month that he faces near-impossible odds of winning the nomination. For the second straight election, Clinton has allowed an insurgent to capture a historic share of the Democratic Party’s primary votes. She is now staggering to the Democratic nomination with a shrinking 1-point lead over Sanders in the latest RealClearPolitics average of national primary polls.
Democratic turnout has plummeted in nearly every state from 2008, including in areas with large nonwhite voting populations. Hispanics stayed home in Texas, contributing to a nearly 50 percent drop-off in turnout from eight years ago. In Georgia, African-Americans didn’t vote in large numbers, cutting the state’s Democratic turnout from over 1 million in 2008 to only 765,000 in 2016. The fast-growing Puerto Rican population center of Florida—Orange County—saw Democratic turnout dip by 16,000 voters from eight years ago. Cuyahoga County, the Democratic base of battleground Ohio, saw a whopping 44 percent decline in party voters.
No, primary turnout doesn’t necessarily translate into general-election results. If Republicans nominate Donald Trump, he’d be a one-man mobilization machine for many of these constituencies. But when you have a candidate who is consistently underperforming with core elements of the Obama coalition, it raises serious questions about the candidate’s appeal. Clinton’s Obama-centric campaign strategy relies on rallying the base before reaching out to disaffected moderates. If touting Obama’s agenda and co-opting elements of Sanders’s stump speech can’t rally the party faithful, what will?
In hindsight, Clinton would have been better served embracing the centrist “Third Way” politics that her husband championed while not pandering to the liberal constituencies already aligned with Sanders. If she pitched a plan for economic growth instead of lamenting income inequality, supported free trade instead of siding with her party’s populists against Obama’s trade deal, and stood up to the extreme voices in her party (like Bill Clinton did last week), she’d be in better position to win over the independents and moderate Republicans who loathe Trump and are lukewarm to Cruz.
By veering to the left from the outset and running on a third term of Obama’s presidency, she’s made it very difficult to win over voters in the middle. She emulated the Obama campaign’s belief that elections are won by rallying the base, not by appealing to the shrinking number of undecided voters. Now, facing resistance from that very base, she’s become dependent on Republicans to nominate someone unelectable to get her out of her predicament.
Ironically, if Cruz were the nominee, he’d have little trouble winning over the conservative Republican base. Indeed, he’d adopt a general-election strategy that’s awfully similar to Obama’s 2012 campaign—rally the partisan faithful and rely on his opponent’s negatives to drive voters his way. But he would face serious difficulty in keeping less-partisan voters in his camp. Some of Trump’s disaffected supporters could end up staying home if he’s the nominee, and Cruz would also face resistance from mainline Republicans.
This presidential election will be decided by which party can best win over constituencies that have been stubbornly resistant to establishment favorites: working-class white voters (for Republicans, if Trump isn’t the nominee) and millennials (for Hillary Clinton). Democrats are hoping that attacks on Cruz’s conservative ideology and unctuous personality will be enough to turn out their depressed base. Republicans are hoping that Clinton is reviled enough to unify the opposition and heal the party’s deep divisions in the four months after the Cleveland convention.
One thing is clear: The general election will continue to be a race to the bottom.
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