Throughout the campaign season, the conventional wisdom has been that Democrats hold the advantage in winning the White House in 2016. That’s the view of number-cruncher Nate Silver, who projected this month that Democrats have a “slight edge” at this early stage. It’s the consensus of the betting markets, which currently show Democrats with much greater odds than Republicans of electing the next president in 2016. It’s the overall media consensus, which views the chaotic, Donald Trump-dominated GOP field as not ready for prime time. And it’s all wrong.
Nearly every fundamental measure—with the notable exception of the country’s demographic shifts—favors the Republicans in 2016. The public overwhelmingly believes the country is headed in the wrong direction (23/69, a historic low in Bloomberg’s national poll). President Obama’s job-approval rating has been consistently underwater, with the opposition intensely rejecting his policies. Any economic growth has been uneven, with more Americans pessimistic than optimistic about the future. The public’s natural desire for change after eight years of Democrats in the White House benefits the opposition. Meanwhile, the party’s likely standard-bearer has been saddled with weak favorability ratings of her own, with her email scandal dragging down her trustworthiness in the minds of voters. This is not the environment in which the party in power typically prevails.
That was all true even before the terrorist attacks in Paris ratcheted up national security as a dominant issue heading into the presidential election. Obama, who dismissed ISIS terrorists this week as “a bunch of killers with good social media,” is badly out of step with American public opinion on the crucial issue. This week’s ABC News/Washington Post survey showed 59 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is “at war with radical Islam”—a phrase most Democrats resist using. A sizable 60 percent majority supports sending ground troops into Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS. Even on the issue of housing Syrian refugees, on which leading Democrats have rallied behind the president, polls show a clear majority of voters—along with about one-third of the House Democratic caucus—now oppose such measures.
For Republicans and independents, national security has been a first-tier issue since the ISIS beheadings of American journalists in Syria last summer. But for Democrats, the issue lagged as a secondary one, even behind climate change—a point Bernie Sanders continued to make after the Paris attacks. Hillary Clinton’s experience in foreign policy is an asset, and she showcased her smarts—and differences with the president’s view of ISIS and urgency of the terrorist threat—at a Council on Foreign Relations speech last week. But she’ll be saddled by the record of the administration she served, under which ISIS metastasized as a threat. If experience was the most important factor in today’s politics, Clinton might have a lifeline. Republicans, however, will have loads of material with which to question her foreign policy judgment.
The Democrats’ hopes of holding the White House rest on: a) remobilizing the Obama coalition of millennials, single women, and nonwhite voters; and b) hoping that Republicans nominate someone outside the mainstream, like Donald Trump. In short: If the Republican Party doesn’t split in two—which is a distinct possibility if Trump is either nominated or runs as a third-party candidate—Republicans have a clear advantage. In the last two midterm elections, despite the divisive fights between the establishment and tea-party wings of the GOP, Republicans still won back the House and Senate in decisive fashion.
The most recent round of polling illustrates the emerging fundamentals. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who has been underscoring the importance of turning out the “rising American electorate,” released polling this month showing Clinton trailing Trump in Ohio, and only leading him by one point in Colorado and by two points in Florida. Right now, Greenberg concluded, core elements of the party’s base are not enthused to vote in the upcoming presidential election. With a more mainstream Republican tested, it’s likely Clinton would be trailing in all those battlegrounds. The Marquette Law School poll, the gold standard of polling in the Democratic-friendly Badger State, showed Clinton trailing Marco Rubio by a point, 48 to 47 percent. Fox’s New Hampshire polling showed Clinton in a dead heat against most opponents, but trailing Rubio by seven points and Jeb Bush/John Kasich by three.
Nationally, Clinton badly trails most GOP rivals in the latest Quinnipiac and Fox polls. (She trails Rubio by five in Quinnipiac’s national survey and eight in the FOX poll.) In this month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, she’s tied with Ben Carson and only narrowly leads Rubio and Bush. This, despite the disproportionate attention to the GOP field’s chaos, from Trump’s outrageous statements to the field’s rightward march on immigration. If Democrats are content to dismiss the polling trends as insignificant, they’re whistling past the political graveyard.
Even though Obama’s not on the ballot again, his presence will dominate the trajectory of the 2016 election. If he continues to use his final two years in office to burnish a progressive legacy even when his views run against the desires of the public, Clinton will bear the brunt of the backlash. The president’s base-first strategy has polarized the country to such a degree that it’s hard to see any of his detractors even considering voting for a Democrat in the next presidential election.
The Obama theory of the race has long been that there’s a growing liberal core of voters in the country, and the key to winning elections is by mobilizing that diverse base. Yet, as the midterm elections indicated, that enthusiasm was as much attributable to Obama’s personal likability as any adherence to a liberal agenda. Can Clinton, whose personal favorability ratings are underwater, inspire voters the same way as the president has? Count me as skeptical.
Even in today’s polarized times, the most fatalistic political scientists acknowledge that about one-tenth of the electorate is still truly persuadable—an amount that makes the difference between a nail-biter and a blowout. These are the very voters who have drifted away from Democrats lately. Democrats have been clinging to the theory that they’re close to locking down presidential elections even though they’ve struggled mightily in the last two midterms. If Clinton loses and disproves the conventional wisdom, the intra-party recriminations will be particularly ugly.
Most pundits are expecting a very close presidential election. I’m not so sure. With terrorism on the march, rising fear of crime at home, growing racial polarization, pervasive economic anxiety, and a president detached from it all, the pieces are in play for a GOP landslide. The only thing stopping Republicans is themselves.
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This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.