November 11, 2015

The Stakes of the 2016 presidential election are very high for Democratic constituencies because retention of the White House could well be the only thing preventing Republicans from repealing the 20th Century. This is one of my primary takeaways from a vigorous and thoughtful ongoing debate among academics and data journalists about the precarious position of the Democratic Party nationally going into the 2016 elections. Contributions to this debate can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Academic blogger Matt Yglesias (the author of another provocative piece that started a thoughtful conversation called “American Democracy is Doomed”) started this debate by arguing that the Democrats’ apparent advantages in presidential elections have made them complacent and insufficiently mindful of how dominant the GOP is at the state and local levels. The implication here is that the GOP now dominates the level of government where most public policy gets made, and that while Democrats are looking forward to electing the first female president, the Republicans are turning back the clock on women’s health, voting rights, collective bargaining rights, and dismantling public higher education in red states across the country.

Thomas Schaller supports Yglesias’ thesis by highlighting structural, socioeconomic, and rhetorical advantages presently enjoyed by the GOP.  Over representation of rural voters in the Senate, partisan gerrymanding of House districts in red states, and Republican turnout advantages in non-federal elections held in off-years give the GOP clear structural advantages on Capitol Hill as well as in state capitols around the country.  Schaller described what he calls the Republicans “socioeconomic amplifier” as follows:

Generational, gendered, racial, and class-based disparities in wealth and political power manifestly favor the Republicans’ older, more male, whiter, and wealthier coalition. In a country where registration is voluntary and voting takes place on a workday, the party with older and more-affluent voters enjoys a boost at the polls. It’s no coincidence that Republicans tend to oppose early or same-day registration but support stricter voter-ID laws to solve the phantom problem of voter fraud. A few months following the 2014 midterms, with despair palpable in his voice, President Obama lamented that the “political map” would “completely change” if every American voted.

Finally, Schaller reminds us that being the anti-government party gives some rhetorical advantage to the GOP. Republicans are the “party of nothing,” and “nothing” is the result American politics is best geared to deliver.”

Those who see a brighter Democratic Party future argue that the present dominance by the Republicans on Capitol Hill and at the state and local levels is consistent with longstanding patterns of ebb and flow similar to what political scientists used to call “realignments.” Furthermore, continued Democratic success at the presidential level, which is suggested by demographic trends, and turnout projections will allow Democrats to set the tone and control the political narrative in a national political environment that is increasingly confounding Tip O’Neill's famous conventional wisdom that “all politics is local.”  For example, at present income inequality appears to be a theme that the 2016 GOP presidential contenders have been unable to sidestep.

In my opinion, the most persuasive argument regarding the precarious position of the Democratic Party makes Yglasias’ electoral pessimism less alarming, without encouraging false confidence among Democratic partisans. The hyper-focus on the White House criticized by Yeglesias becomes entirely understandable when you consider the increasing public policy impact of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ian Millhiser explains how “the future of the Democratic Party will be decided by the Supreme Court.” The Court of the early to mid-20th Century served as a de facto partner to the expansion of presidential and federal power. The impact of the Roberts Court on policy issues important to Democrats has already been significant. With three Justices in their 80s the next president may well be positioned to solidify a Court majority capable of smoothing the way for important policy achievements. Millhiser wisely concludes that “[t]he Democratic Party…is facing an apocalypse if the Supreme Court moves further to the right, and the only way for them to stop this apocalypse is to hold on to the White House.”

Of course, the clarity and enormity of the partisan stakes in 2016 is not just a Democratic worry, it’s also a tremendous Democratic advantage that will allow them to frame the 2016 campaign narrative in substantive public policy terms, while at the same time discouraging Republicans from running on their policy agenda. GOP dysfunction in Congress and in the 2016 presidential nominating process caused by the outsized influence of so-called “Tea Party” Republicans, along with sufficiently positive peace and prosperity “fundamentals” will prevent the GOP nominee from being able to sanitize the party’s legislative agenda sufficiently for general election purposes.

Even at this early stage of the 2016 cycle observers of the party nomination contests can plainly see that the Democrats are running on issues like economic inequality, climate change, and on stopping the GOP from repealing both the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement, while the GOP struggles to mix in tired anti-government, bellicose national security, and pro-free market rhetoric with efforts to sully Hillary Clinton enough to lay the groundwork for a viable candidate-centered general election campaign.

The real nail biter on Election Day next year will be in the U.S. Senate races where Democratic advantages may not be enough to recapture the chamber President Clinton will need to confirm her Supreme Court nominees. The fact that Clinton should be able to run a policy-centric campaign at the top of the ticket, however, should facilitate better campaign coordination and potentially greater coattails.

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