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.
Since then, the stubbornly slow economic recovery has hardened skepticism. In April's Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, just one-fourth of adults said Obama's agenda is increasing economic opportunity for people like them. And while the administration recovered from the health care law's disastrous launch to exceed its enrollment goals, in polls more people still say the law will hurt rather than help either their own family or the country overall. On both fronts, the numbers are especially bleak among whites.
Add to this list the widening scandal at Veterans Affairs and the promise of a pitched regional battle over upcoming federal regulations to limit carbon emissions from power plants, and the next Democratic nominee will face a stark test.
Whether the Democrats pick Hillary Clinton or someone else, the party's 2016 agenda will inevitably revolve around new government initiatives to spur the economy and expand opportunity. If most Americans conclude that a similar approach under Obama has not benefited their family, the nominee will face a formidable burden of proof. GOP pollster Whit Ayres says that not only Republicans but also most independents have concluded that Obama's agenda "certainly hasn't worked for me." That means, he continues, if Clinton is the nominee, "she has a substantial challenge to persuade voters that Democrats have something new to offer."
Clinton's speech last week to the New America Foundation offered the first hints of how she might try to meet that test. In essence she offered something old and something new. The old was to link the benefits of activist government not to the Obama years, but to the two terms of her husband Bill Clinton — when the economy produced over 22 million new jobs and broadly shared income gains. The new was her focus on inequality, which allowed her to adopt the populist tone much more common in the party today than during her husband's time. "The big question in 2016 is as likely to revolve around who government works for as it is around how big government is and what it does," says Geoff Garin, a top Clinton adviser in 2008.
That remains to be seen. But even if Democrats can't win the argument about government's role, that doesn't mean they are doomed to defeat in 2016. That's because Republicans remain stumped by their principal challenge after 2012: adapting to a changing electorate, particularly the growing minority population (which could reach 30 percent of voters next time). Apart from nascent efforts from Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Paul Ryan to tackle entrenched urban poverty, the GOP has done little to court minority voters who have consistently preferred Democratic presidential candidates by a ratio of about 4-to-1 since the 1970s. In particular, the insular refusal of House Republicans to consider immigration reform means "the GOP is on the verge of cementing its brand as the anti-immigrant party," as reform advocate Frank Sharry argued this week.
Each side may be betting mostly on biography to solve its lingering challenge. Clinton's family pedigree — which reaches back to her husband's balanced budgets and welfare reform-might reassure center-right whites who consider Obama too devoted to big government. Republicans might make gains with Hispanics by placing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez on their ticket. But personality will only bend, not break, these dynamics. Without an agenda that directly confronts their bookended weaknesses with whites and minorities, neither Democrats nor Republicans are likely to escape the precarious division of power that has polarized and paralyzed Washington.