After President Obama’s landslide victory in 2008 and his not-as-easy re-election in 2012, liberal pundits argue that Democrats have a structural and demographic advantage when it comes to winning presidential elections. Social trends favor Democrats, as people flock to cities — which have become liberal strongholds — while single women and minorities make up more and more of the electorate.
Nevertheless, Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle warns that “parties are most vulnerable at precisely the moment when they feel themselves strongest.” Under Barack Obama, the Democratic Party lost 69 U.S. House seats, 14 U.S. Senate seats, and 920 state legislature seats. Following last month’s elections, Republicans now have 33 governors and 67 out of 99 state legislatures. They will hold “total control” (both the governor’s mansion and the lawmaking body) of 24 states.
So which is it? Are Republicans hopelessly out of touch, or are Democrats reeling from an unpopular president? This article will present the argument for each side, and leave the conclusion up to the reader — and next year’s electorate.
The Blue Wall — Democrats Victorious
Republicans have no chance, argued the Guardian’s Stan Greenberg. “The U.S. is now beyond the electoral tipping point, driven by a new progressive electorate: racial minorities (black and Hispanic) plus single women, millennials (born between 1982 and 2000) and secular voters together formed 51 percent of the electorate in 2012; and will reach a politically critical 63 percent next year.”
Diversity, Greenberg notes, has become a cultural touchstone — one of five global migrants move to America; nearly 40 percent of the populations of New York City and Los Angeles are foreign born; 50 percent of Silicon Valley’s engineers are immigrants, as well as more than half of U.S. Nobel laureates.
A new society has emerged, with a majority of Americans living in unmarried households since 2011. Three-quarters of women have joined the labor force, and two-thirds are the principal or joint breadwinner. Religious observance has plummeted across religious denominations, with the sole exception of white evangelicals.
These factors propel a telling wave of liberal cultural values — according to Gallup, 60 – 70 percent of Americans said gay and lesbian relations, having a child out of wedlock, and sex between unmarried women and men are all “morally acceptable.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in 2004 targeted social conservatives, bolstering turnout among evangelicals and championing moral issues like opposing same-sex marriage. This coalition got George W. Bush re-elected, but has weakened in the face of Obama. By choosing these social issues, Republicans have allied themselves with the oldest, most rural, most religious, and married cohort of Americans — a shrinking electoral portion.
As Greenberg puts it, “these trends have pushed states with large, growing metropolitan centres, such as Florida, Virginia, and Colorado, over the blue Democratic wall, creating formidable odds against Republicans winning the electoral college majority” and the presidency.
Many pundits reference the “blue wall” in presidential politics — the states that voted Democratic in the past six presidential elections. Since 1992, the GOP has lost 19 states — including the populous states of California, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania — every time, forming a “blue wall” that added up to 242 electoral votes in 2012 (a candidate only needs 270 to win the presidency). In other words, prepare to hear the phrase “President Hillary Clinton.”
Furthermore, Obama’s midterm election losses are nothing new. As RealClearPolitics’ Bill Scher pointed out, every U.S. president who has served two full terms since 1952 has seen his party lose at least one house of Congress during a midterm. Democrats even took eight governor seats during President Reagan’s first term — for a total of 35.
Democrats lost 524 state legislative seats under Clinton, and Republicans lost 324 state seats by the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. While Obama’s midterm losses are the most severe of any two-term president in the last 70 years, this can mainly be attributed to historical circumstances. Republicans won the 2002 midterms following the September 11 attacks, and Democrats won the 1998 midterms following the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton. Obama, by contrast, just got unlucky. But don’t be fooled — this is nothing out of the ordinary.
Even with the Republican wins, Obamacare has been fully implemented in most states, 17 states have raised the minimum wage since 2013, and major executive actions have been taken to protect illegal immigrants and thwart climate change. Obama is a transformational president, and like Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan before him, he will boost his successor to victory.
Next page: 2016 — The Great Year of Republican Opportunity
Poppycock. First, as polling expert Nate Silver explained, “there is no ‘blue wall.’” In 1992, the press discussed the Republican Party’s supposed “lock” on the Electoral College. From 1968 to 1988, 21 states voted Republican every time — including California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Virginia. These states would add up to 191 electoral votes in today’s scheme — not enough to guarantee victory, but a substantial advantage.
Bill Clinton demolished that theory (with substantial help from Ross Perot). Four of the GOP’s supposed “lock” states haven’t gone Republican since — California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Vermont. Just like Democrats broke the “red wall,” so too can Republicans break the “blue wall.”
According to Silver’s analysis of American presidential elections since 1916, the popular vote largely determines the electoral vote. If Mitt Romney had won in 2012 by the margin Obama took (3.9 percentage points) he would have won 330 electoral votes — about the same as Obama’s 332. In this scenario, assuming equal spread of voting among the states, Romney would have taken three “blue wall” states — Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
The “blue wall” only reinforces what Americans already know — Democrats have won the popular vote in the past five of six presidential elections. But in 1992, Republicans had won five out of the past six presidential elections. Then, they lost.
There is good reason to think the Democrat winning spree may end, just as the Republican one did. According to an Ipsos analysis of 450 elections from 35 countries, a presidential incumbent is very likely to get re-elected, but a successor from their party is three times less likely to eke out a win.
In order for a successor to have better than even chances of winning, the sitting president needs an approval rating above 55 percent. Since Obama’s average approval rating is now at 45 percent, a successor candidate (i.e., a Democrat, likely Hillary Clinton) is unlikely to win. With Obama’s present approval rating, it would be 78 percent likely for him to win re-election, but it is only 14 percent likely for a successor to take his place.
A historical analysis of American presidential elections confirms this likelihood. Since the first Republican presidential campaign in 1856, there have been 16 elections following the re-election of a sitting president. In the vast majority of these elections, the incumbent party (the party of the president) has lost to the challenger party (the party out of power), especially without an incumbent on the ballot. This trend has become more pronounced after World War II, even more so following Democratic presidents.
Since Barack Obama cannot run for a third term, it is quite plausible that his winning coalition could break up, which would give Republicans a demographic edge. Contrary to many media narratives, Hispanics are unlikely to sway the presidential election, one way or another. While blacks have a better chance at determining the outcome, they may not turn out in droves or vote uniformly Democratic, like they did when electing the first black president.
Between 9 and 11 percent of blacks have historically voted Republican. Without Obama on the ballot in 2016, black conservatives may return to the Republican Party. Also, fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008. If whites return to their 2008 turnout level, and if the GOP picks up a few more percentage points among them, a Republican candidate would win in a landslide.
Furthermore, liberal causes have lost recently at the ballot box. After the Republican Tea Party landslide in 2010 following the passage of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the Democrats took another shellacking in 2014. Abortion star Wendy Davis lost the governor’s race in Texas, and Mark Udall, who ran a campaign focused on the Republican “war on women,” lost in Colorado.
This year, Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin — who publicly embraced Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage — won the Kentucky governorship. Voters in liberal Houston struck down a transgender “equal rights” initiative. San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi — famous for supporting “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants — was defeated by 31 points. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun control group attacked two Republican state senators in Virginia, and one survived — leaving the state senate in GOP hands.
Recent elections — and the evidence of history — leads one to expect a Republican victory in 2016. Americans are tired of Obama and ready for a change.