The 2016 election cycle is going to reveal the further impact of
some already detected demographic trends, as well as disclose
some new ones and their electoral consequences. But
demographic phenomena alone won’t bring about the eventual
results. Two other criteria will provoke outcomes.
First, and not surprisingly, there will be contests determined
by the new campaign technologies, many of them already seen
in the 2012 and 2014 cycles. Voter ID and get-out-the-vote (GOTV)
strategies have become, and will continue to be, highly
sophisticated and increasingly essential. No presidential race
or any competitive statewide contest will be successful without
very serious high-tech efforts in voter ID and GOTV, as well as
in innovative campaign communication.
Much has already been written and discussed about the campaign
demographics and technologies likely to be seen in 2016, but it is
the third element, ideological position, which might be the most
decisive element of all in 2016.
There is much more to this element than the labels “liberal” and
Although there is some continuity between cycles, each
presidential cycle especially presents new and often unanticipated
circumstances. It is a given that 2016 will offer voters no incumbent
in the presidential race. The 2010 congressional redistricting makes
it very unlikely Republicans will lose control of the U.S. house,
while the imbalance of incumbents up for re-election to the U.S.
senate favors Democrats.
Commonplace conclusions from these circumstances would suggest
that, after two terms of a Democratic president, Republicans have
the edge in the presidential contest and that the Democrats are
likely to win back control of the U.S. senate (24 GOP incumbents
seats are up in 2016, and only 10 Democratic seats).
I suggest it is too early to draw these conclusions.
While there likely will be some inevitable “Obama fatigue”
among many voters, particularly among independent voters, in
November, 2016, Democratic strategists have options open to
them which might overwhelm this 8-year “fatigue” pattern. The
1988 cycle demonstrated how, with a weak nominee/ticket,
Republicans were able to retain the White House after two terms
of President Reagan. The question is: Is Hillary Clinton a strong
or weak nominee? The polls so far indicate that Democratic voters
remain determined to nominate Mrs. Clinton, who would be the
first woman nominated by a major party for president. Many
Democrats, furthermore, consider calls for the liberal party to
choose another nominee to be a conservative “plot” to deprive
them of their strongest nominee. Many savvy GOP strategists I
know, however, prefer Mrs. Clinton over a “wild card” Democratic
nominee who might snatch a surprising victory from defeat in
This is not unlike the preference of Democratic strategists
for Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008 to be their
opponents. Well-known nationally, firmly established in their
party, Mr. Dole and Mr. McCain were nevertheless ultimately
weak nominees. Aside from the gender card she always plays. Mrs.
Clinton is a controversial figure and an unimpressive campaigner.
The current discussion of her conduct as secretary of state, and
of the allegations about the Clinton Foundation which she
co-heads with her husband, the former president, are proving to
be a protracted and enduring drag on her public image. In some
ways, her opponents are accomplishing what Mitt Romney’s
opponents accomplished in 2011-12 before his nomination, i.e., so
severely wounding his political image early that he could not
recover momentum in his race against Mr. Obama.
On the other hand, the Republican presidential nomination
contest has become, at its outset, an opaque battle of several
personalities, ranging from center right to radical right. This
reflects much of the public discussion of current conservative
politics, but not necessarily the mood of most conservative
voters. Lacking a frontrunner as the Democrats have, the GOP
field of candidates is initially very large, as it was in 2012. In
the latter cycle, the debate season produced polls with rotating,
frontrunning contestants until Mr Romney finally prevailed.
It was thought briefly that Jeb Bush would emerge quickly as the
dominant candidate in 2016, but the early picture has at least
three major candidates, Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio,
with Chris Christie and John Kasich, among others, waiting in the
wings. The debates will likely be instructive, but this cycle, the
early primaries/caucuses might not play the roles they have in the
past. Already, the traditional opening shot of the GOP contest,
the Iowa Straw Poll, is floundering as many of the major
candidates are skipping the event.
If 2014 was truly instructive of the current Republican voter
mood, it was that GOP voters wanted, more than ideological
satisfactions, to win control of the senate. The question is
whether this mood continues into the 2016 cycle. If it does, the
large field will be reduced quickly. If Republicans are mired,
however, in ideological squabbles, over social issues especially,
they risk turning off the all-important independent and centrist
voters, and enable the Democrats to win.
As for the senate races, the Democrats strategy has so far been to
recruit many previous losing candidates to challenge vulnerable
GOP incumbents. It was GOP recruitment of fresh faces, however,
that led to their remarkable gains in 2014, picking up 9 seats. The
“old face” strategy could prevent the liberal party from making the
net gains they will need to take back the senate.
Finally, there is the question of the role of “populism” in the 2016
campaign. Many have suggested that populist rhetoric is currently
a resurgent sound in contemporary politics. Some conservatives
are urging that GOP candidates embrace this rhetoric as a way to
check liberal calls for larger government, higher taxes (of the rich)
and general redistributions of wealth --- and the traditional
Democratic strategy to accuse the conservatives to be plutocrats
and worse. The problem for Democrats in employing this strategy
in 2016 is that most of the new millionaires and billionaires are
liberals, and that some of their most prominent figures have
become rich using the very techniques which party rhetoric
denounces. At the same time, the Republican grass roots is
increasingly blue collar and middle class. This would suggest
that Republican cannot outbid Democrats with populist rhetoric,
but that conservatives’ best strategy is aggressively and
persistently to demolish the liberal premises and inconsistencies.
The GOP, until 2014, failed in this task, and if they fail in it again
in 2016, they could miss an historic opportunity.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.