Each party emerged from the 2012 presidential election facing one key electoral challenge before the next contest in 2016. More than 18 months later, neither side has made much progress toward overcoming it. That failure frames the central test for each party's likely 2016 contenders as they approach the race's starting line.
For Democrats, the critical task after President Obama's reelection was rebuilding faith in activist government, particularly among the white middle-class. But the evidence suggests that Democrats instead have continued to lose ground on that front.
The collapse of faith in the private sector that followed the financial crash offered Obama an opening: On the day he was elected in 2008, 51 percent of voters said in exit polls that they believed government should be doing more to solve problems, while only 43 percent said it was doing too much.
But that foundation proved rickety once Obama took office. Most economists believe his stimulus plan prevented a deeper downturn, but polls showed that most Americans, still buffeted by high unemployment and plunging home values, believed it benefited the wealthy and big corporations rather than average families. In mirror image, polls found that most Americans (especially whites) concluded his health care bill would help the poor and uninsured rather than their own families. By the 2012 election, the numbers on government's role had reversed: Just 43 percent of voters said that government should be doing more while 51 percent (including 59 percent of whites) said it was doing too much.