We are revving up for another election, and journalists with a vested interest in a close race are arguing that the Democrats are at a disadvantage. To make their case, they note that history says it’s uncommon for a party to retain the White House for three consecutive terms, as voters appear to favor a pendulum swing in the White House. As Jon Green already explained, this argument is tenuous at best, relying on an arbitrary date range and a tiny sample size. Going beyond that, however, it ignores the fact that the GOP has plenty of disadvantages of its own headed into 2016.
The main problem for the GOP is that the electoral map favors the Democrats. In order to become President, a candidate needs 270 electoral votes. States that have voted for the Democratic candidate in every election since 1992 account for 242 electoral votes by themselves. So Democrats need only hold those states and add Florida, or Ohio and Virginia, or Ohio and two smaller swing states (Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada and New Hampshire are all likely candidates), and the White House is theirs. Even if the Republican candidate wins Ohio and Florida, the Democrats can still win with several remaining combinations of smaller states.
This doesn’t guarantee a Democratic win, but it does mean that the Democrats have a lot more paths to victory than the Republicans. Democrats don’t have any must-win swing states; Republicans cannot win the White House without Florida, and even then they would need a few other battle ground states.
Of course, this all presupposes that the 242 electoral votes constitute an impenetrable “Blue Wall” of states that Democrats are sure to win. As Nate Silver has pointed out, this is itself a shaky assumption. It wouldn’t take a very large swing in the national popular vote in order to swing a host of traditionally Democratic states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota, to say nothing of Virginia, Ohio and Florida — into the Republican column. As Silver concludes, the Electoral College does benefit the Democrats, but only slightly. In the event the popular vote was split 50-50 in 2012, President Obama would only have won 285 electoral votes. A win, but a much closer win than the “Blue Wall” hypothesis would predict.
So if all the “Blue Wall” hypothesis is really saying is that Democrats have won the popular vote in all but one election since 1992, and that fact is reflected in state-by-state voting patterns, the better question is not which states the GOP can or can’t win, but rather why Democrats have such a consistent advantage in the national popular vote.
The answer to that question is pretty clear: The GOP doesn’t share America’s values, and has no intention of doing so any time soon. This national phenomenon may be borne out in state-level election returns, but it remains a fundamentally national problem for the GOP.
A 60 percent supermajority of Americans support gay marriage, yet Ben Carson said that prison rape proves homosexuality is a choice. Ted Cruz worried that the “gay jihad” would lead to pastors being locked up and said that it is the greatest threat to religious freedom in US history. Mike Huckabee said it would lead to the “criminalization of Christianity.” These comments are not just far right; they are insane. And that opinion is shared between the left and the median American voter. This being the case, the persistent need for Republican candidates to push their base’s hate buttons will hurt the ability of any eventual nominee to go on to win the Presidency. If a nominee manages to emerge without having to sully himself with such insanity, he (and, despite Carly Fiornia’s best efforts, it will be a he) will be obstructed by the PR problems generated by the other Republican candidates.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans want Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. So, as Mitt Romney learned the hard way in 2012, the GOP’s desire to make life so uncomfortable for illegal immigrants that they leave on their own (lovingly described as “self deportation”) doesn’t square with the electorate at large. Outright nativism doesn’t just hurt Republicans in “Blue Wall” states with lots of latino voters like California; it hurts them nationally. This is reflected on the margins in emerging blue states like New Mexico and Colorado because those states are closer to begin with, but it says more about the national electorate than it does about any one state.
And let’s not forget GOP-led efforts in states across the country to keep students, seniors and African-Americans from voting altogether. They’re in every state and, like it or not, they vote in Presidential elections.
It should come as no surprise that the GOP has alienated much of the country. After all, we’re talking about a party in which less than half of likely primary voters believe that the Jade Helm 15 training exercises are not a conspiracy by the American military to take over land it already owns. In order to win the Presidency, a Republican candidate has to win those voters in the primary, and then they have to keep those voters energized enough to turn out in the general election. It’s practically impossible to both do that and come close to winning the national popular vote.
Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee will probably win after a relatively uneventful walk through the primary in which s/he can bank much of their money and pivot to a general election message earlier on. While Ted Cruz rouses suspicions about martial law, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are talking about immigration reform and overturning Citizens United. Furthermore, as Clinton’s nascent campaign has shown, the median American voter in 2016 is to the left of where she stood in 2008 on a host of social and economic issues. The Democrats have plenty of room to navigate.
The laws of politics are true until they aren’t. Eventually, the Blue Wall will crumble and the Republicans will win back the White House. However, there’s good reason to believe that 2016 will not be the year that happens. It would be a mistake to say that current demographic trends give the Democrats a lock on the White House, but it would also be a mistake to deny that Republicans have a lot of hurdles to jump over if they intend to win the Presidency — hurdles that they themselves put in place.