The 2016 race for the White House is starting to feel strangely familiar. It’s starting to feel a lot like the Massachusetts 2012 U.S. Senate race between Senator Scott Brown and Professor Elizabeth Warren. That race provided much of the impetus for the creation of MassPoliticsProfs, by the way. We launched the blog on August 15, 2011 and my very first post was an explanation of why Elizabeth Warren would be an excellent challenger to Senator Brown. On January 13, 2012, months before she had even earned the Democratic nomination, I flatly stated what I saw as the obvious…that Warren would in fact win both the nomination and the election. While a presidential election surely has more moving parts than a U.S. Senate race, and despite the fact that the election is still nearly 17 months away, I am awfully tempted to try to bolster my claims to “soothsayer” status by going national, dropping the CYA qualifications, and calling the 2016 presidential election for Hillary Clinton now.
In January, I began thinking that all the GOP 2016 nomination excitement would amount to an entertaining competition for a chance to lose the general election, though I wasn’t yet sure it would be a loss to Mrs. Clinton. My pessimism about Republican presidential prospects continued to grow in February and early April. In this April 12th piece Jonathan Chait offered six reasons why Hillary Clinton “is probably going to win” the presidency, the most persuasive of which was the sixth. According to Chait (and I quite agree), Clinton would win in November because there simply wouldn’t be an acceptable alternative. Chait reasons (correctly IMHO) that Clinton would be “the candidate of the only major American political party not run by lunatics,” and the only realistic choice “for voters who want a president who accepts climate science and rejects voodoo economics, and whose domestic platform would not engineer the largest upward redistribution of resources in American history.”
What Chait doesn’t quite spell out is why we should be so confident that voters will focus on these unpopular elements of the GOP’s policy agenda. He describes the present lack of popular support for key elements of the Republican agenda, and makes effective use of public opinion trends identified by a recent Pew survey, but the case is even stronger when you consider the predictable response of the so-called “swing” voters to the reality that the election of a Republican president in 2017 would give the GOP control of all three branches of the federal government, thereby eliminating an important check on unrestrained Republican partisanship and leading to the enactment of highly unpopular hardline conservative public policies. This institutional/partisan factor isn’t showing up much yet in early horse race polls or in 2016 political commentary, but when the Democratic nominee starts using this potent and easily conveyed institutional argument to frame the general election narrative the Republican nominee will be forced to defend (or defend himself against) the many unpopular elements of the GOPs policy agenda. If policy and/or institutional party balance considerations dominate the 2016 campaign narrative the GOP nominee doesn’t stand a chance, especially with Hillary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket.
Like Scott Brown in 2012, the GOP presidential nominee’s only realistic shot at winning revolves around making the election about the candidates. Virtually all of Hilary Clinton’s “negatives” are personal, not policy-based, making a candidate-centric 2016 narrative absolutely crucial for Republicans. The Republicans will have very little opportunity to outflank Clinton on salient policy questions. The former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Secretary of State has had more than enough time and opportunity to both amass the political and financial capital to scare off or defeat serious primary challengers, and (in large part because she has enjoyed “presumptive nominee” status for so long) to optimize her public policy profile. Republicans prospects of using “Benghazi-gate” to attack her foreign policy competence have waned considerably. They have had to settle for using the incident as just another swipe at Clinton’s character. Two recently released polls illustrate this problem for Republicans. Though the latest CNN/ORC and Washington Post-ABC News polls apparently show continued public skepticism about Hillary’s conduct related to the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, these doubts are being sustained by GOP efforts to make it appear that Clinton is engaged in some kind of cover up of misconduct they have never been able to prove. Even if the Republicans manage to cast doubt on Clinton’s “competence,” that would still be easily outweighed by the much more clearly negative party balance implications of electing a Republican president in 2016, something very likely to start showing up in polling data as we get closer to the general election when the Democratic nominee will surely give this institutional issue a prominent place in her campaign pitch to the American people.
So, should I make the bold call now, or should the entrance into the fray of Messrs. Sanders, O’Malley, and Chaffee give me pause?