2008, 2012 and how the GOP can win in 2016

The 2016 campaign has yet to begin: many likely candidates have yet to even admit that they are in fact running. As we stand on the cusp of what promises to be another wild ride of a campaign it is worthwhile to pause, take a step back, and survey where the GOP has been in the last two elections and how it can take back the White House in 2016.

Members of the GOP (both leaders and members of the grassroots) must soon decide which issues will help the party win, and which candidate will be strongest on those issues. Libertarians, defense hawks, deficit hawks, those who hope to repeal Obamacare, and social conservatives must all coalesce around a single candidate who can get the job done for the party as a whole. The most important thing — to get a Republican elected — will require compromises from all quarters and an end to the sort of intra-party bickering we saw in the 2012 primaries.

What exactly will this coalition look like? I’ve spent the past couple of weeks trying to answer that question by reading two books that analyzed how Americans voted in 2008 and 2012 elections. Understanding the data and arguments from these two contests will provide the most useful picture of what we can expect in the 2016 cycle.

Chuck Todd’s How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election provides a close look at how each state voted, but more importantly examines how Barack Obama changed the Democratic party’s coalition. This is useful in predicting how it may change again under a Hillary Clinton candidacy. It sets the stage by showing the reader the strengths of Obama’s vaunted get out the vote and grassroots organizational efforts. Contrasting this with the collection of essays in Larry J. Sabato’s Barack Obama and the New America: The 2012 Election and the Changing Face of Politics provides possible answers to just how the GOP might win in 2016. All of this analysis must come back to policies and messaging and, by extension, who the candidate should be.

As boring as a state-by-state account of a Presidential Election sounds, Mr. Todd (now the host of NBC’s Meet the Press) does a good job of analyzing which states are in the battleground and why. Mr. Todd’s valuable if-then portrayal of the possibilities in 2012 and beyond are particularly useful for the present inquiry.Those looking to jog their memories of how America voted in 2008, would be hard pressed to do better than this concise and very readable book.

Larry J. Sabato’s book is a collection of essays looking at different aspects of the 2012 campaign. With articles by journalists as well as scholars, it provides more direct answers to questions the GOP must answer if they are to win back the White House in 2016.

The first thing to know about the 2008 and 2012 election is that Democrats won the minority vote by huge margins. In both elections, the GOP had to rely almost exclusively on the white vote to win in the states where it was successful. Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinos all turned out in record numbers to support Barack Obama in 2008 as well as 2012. One of the most glaring statistics is President Obama’s 80% share of the nonwhite vote. This made it possible for Romney to lose the election, even though he garnered 69% of the white vote. According to Larry J. Sabato and others in the book, one of the old laws of American politics says that if a candidate can win anywhere near 70% of the white vote, his election is all but certain. Not this time.

In 2008 and 2012, Democrats won the minority vote by huge margins, while the GOP had to rely almost exclusively on the white vote to win in the states where it was successful.

For obvious reasons, the GOP probably never had any hope of winning the African American vote in either 2008 or 2012. It is, on the other hand, entirely possible for Republicans to win at least a respectable share of Latinos, as evidenced by the fact that George W. Bush won reelection with 44% of the Latino vote. While it will probably be impossible for the GOP to win this group outright for the foreseeable future, being as competitive as Bush was in 2004 would pay benefits for the Grand Old Party: it would put states like Florida, Arizona and Nevada within reach. It would also ensure that Texas and Georgia remain solidly red for the future despite their high rates of immigration.

How is this going to happen? As I have argued before, creating an immigration reform plan will pay large dividends for Republicans. Also, a Latino candidate with an impressive immigrant story like Marco Rubio would be instrumental in changing the GOP’s woeful status with this group of voters. Jeb Bush would also be strong in this respect. One thing is for sure: tea party anger and insistence on deporting illegal immigrants is not politically smart for Republicans. The GOP must pick its battles if it wants to be competitive. There has been a good amount of progress in this area as even Rush Limbaugh seems to be warming up to Marco Rubio, despite the latter’s support for the 2013 Senate immigration bill.

Now we move onto the African American vote. As Jamelle Bouie writes in his chapter in Larry J. Sabato’s volume, “Obama’s margin among blacks is the reason he scored consecutive victories in Virginia and Ohio.” Nate Cohn agrees with this conclusion in his chapter, entitled America’s Changing Electorate. Meanwhile, Sean Trende argues that if black turnout in 2016 returns to 2004 levels that even Pennsylvania would be within reach for Republicans. Throw in the fact that Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest coal producing state, and suddenly Pennsylvania could be a battleground state. Finally, if the GOP can get in front of the criminal justice reform issue, inroads can be made with African Americans. Rand Paul has been leading the way on this issue among Republicans for years.

So with a Marco Rubio candidacy, suddenly Nevada and Florida are in play. Similarly, with a Rand Paul candidacy, suddenly Virginia and Ohio are back on the table. Pennsylvania could be up for grabs either way. But more important than 2016 concerns is the fact that in the next fifty years, the white share of the population looks likely to fall to around 44%. While the core of Republican coalition will likely remain mostly white, the GOP must make inroads amongst minorities if it is to remain viable in the long term.

The GOP must also improve its performance among more highly educated whites and younger people as well. These two groups make up a large share of the suburban vote, which George W. Bush won by an 8 point margin in 2004. Obama did well with the suburban vote in Colorado and Northern Virginia as Chuck Todd points out. Hillary Clinton will probably be hard to beat in Virginia due to her deep fundraising roots there, but Colorado is definitely within reach, especially with a candidate who can appeal to this sector of the populace. Again, Rand Paul could do well here based on his more open views on social issues. Clinton will be hard pressed to win as large a share of the youth vote as Obama did in both of his victories. Further, Sean Trende makes the important point that white voter turnout was substantially lower in 2012 than it was in 2008, on the order of 5.7 million(!). Many of these voters live in states that have been solidly democratic in recent presidential elections, like Michigan and Wisconsin. Putting these states back in play would be a huge plus for the Republican candidate as well. Add in the fact that a large percentage of white voters are entering a “peak voting” age group, and one must conclude that if Clinton is unable to maintain Obama’s high standing among young voters, she will be in trouble in 2016. This would be particularly true if the candidate were John Kasich, who would almost certainly appeal to a majority of Midwestern moderates.

On November 7, 2016 the electoral map I hope to be looking at will show standard Democratic victories in New England (except for a possibly red Pennsylvania) and on the West Coast. But I see a solid South, including a red North Carolina and Florida. I also see a nearly solid red mountain West, including possibly Colorado and Nevada. I also see a blue Virginia, as well as a blue Illinois, Minnesota, and New Mexico. Iowa and Ohio are red. There is possibly a red Wisconsin or Michigan, although this is admittedly a long shot. At any rate, a GOP victory is a distinct possibility with the right candidate.

Jeb Bush, though a good candidate may struggle to motivate the base.

A few closing thoughts on Jeb Bush: He is a man of character and has an unparalleled commitment to public service, as do all the members of his family. On the issues he is more moderate than much of the base but he makes up for this with his strong fundraising organization. The most serious stumbling block that Bush faces (and as we’ve seen this week) is his last name, which would make it hard for him to beat Hillary Clinton. The GOP absolutely must provide a contrast to the Clinton machine. A come-from-behind candidate like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul or John Kasich would excel in this capacity. My biggest fear for 2016 is a drawn-out primary with Jeb Bush emerging as the battered and bruised nominee like Mitt Romney did in 2012.

…a GOP victory is a distinct possibility with the right candidate.

That being said, I am heartened by the GOP’s prospects in the next election. While Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee, she can be beat. But all elements of the GOP (establishment and grassroots) must realize that any one of the GOP candidates would make a far better president than Clinton. It all comes back to policy: if the GOP picks the candidate with the right stances, the GOP can win in 2016 and in the future. That’s right: even Jeb Bush can win if the GOP unites behind him as its candidate. With the wrong policy platform, the GOP will continue to suffer at the polls in Presidential elections for the foreseeable future.

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