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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« The Republican Message Writes Itself | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Predicting the 2010 Midterm Election Results »

The GOP's 2012 Problem?

I think Barack Obama is going to be tough to beat in 2012, but for few of the reasons that Ed Kilgore lists in this column.

For starters, how's about this:

[S]mart Democrats understand that one of their chief liabilities right now figures to be an asset in 2012: the shape of the electorate. Turnout in midterm elections invariably skews toward older and whiter voters. Yet Obama's 2008 performance varied inversely with age categories and also depended on a historic ethnic-minority turnout that isn't about to be repeated in a midterm election.

Maybe, but context is important. The Baby Boomers split their vote between Nixon and McGovern in 1972. Eight years later, they were tilted toward Reagan. By 1988 they supported the seriously unhip George Herbert Walker Bush. The lesson? Don't count younger voters as a secure part of your coalition. They're young. Their circumstances and their perspectives can change. And so also can their partisanship.

I'd note that Gallup right now has Obama at 58% among adults aged 18-29. In 2008, he won 66% of voters in that age group.

Kilgore continues:

The 2012 electorate...should look more like that of 2008. Not content with their midterm advantage, Republicans have done a lot to brand themselves as the party of angry old white people: the GOP's conspicuous identification with the Tea Party movement, and the campaign to mobilize Medicare beneficiaries against healthcare reform are two examples.

Because white people are the only ones who receive Medicare? Because the Democrats didn't mobilize Medicare beneficiaries in 1996?

Let's get something straight: if Republicans win 60% of the white vote in 2012, they stand a great shot at winning the White House. Here's the math:

-In 2008, McCain won 55% of whites, who accounted for 74% of all voters.

-If the Republican nominee wins 60% of whites and they again count for 74%, then the GOP's share of the vote will go up by 3.7% if everything else stays the same.

-But these voters will be coming from Obama's side, so Obama's share of the vote will go down by 3.7%.

-That makes for a total swing of 7.4%.

-Obama won the 2008 presidential vote by 7.27%. So, if 5% of white voters shift from Obama to the GOP nominee and everything else stays the same, the GOP would win the popular vote by 0.13%.

So, that's the popular vote. It would probably swing the Electoral College. The Democratic vote is clustered in big states like Illinois, New York, and California that are simply not in play. It would be mathematically possible for the GOP - whose voters are more beneficially distributed across the 50 states - to suffer the same fate as Gore in 2000, but it is pretty unlikely.

Is 60% of the white vote infeasible? Well, right now Gallup has Obama's approval among white adults at 39%.

Oh, and Obama is at 62% approval among Hispanic adults according to Gallup. He won 67% of Hispanic voters in 2008. Such a drop-off would result in about a one point swing in the nationwide popular vote. A GOP popular vote victory of 1% or more would almost certainly tip the Electoral College.

Another thing known to tip the Electoral College? A measly reelect number of 46%.

Of course, I can cite you numbers and statistics to push back on the "emerging Democratic majority" theme until you and I are both totally exhausted. Lord knows I've been doing that for the last year and a half. But I think it's time for us to learn to coexist with this argument - it ain't going nowhere. Its advocates have enough ad hoc addenda they can toss onto it to account for anything at all. Dems are winning? Emerging Democratic majority! Dems are losing? Emerging Democratic majority!

But the last year and a half indicates why coexistence should not become capitulation. This theory has a ton of problems. It's one thing to win a single election. That does not make for a realignment - because "realignment" suggests that some voters switch parties and then they don't switch back. That in turn suggests that the victorious party governs to the satisfaction of the new voters. So far, Obama has failed to do this. Whether Kilgore likes it or not, angry white people were a major factor in Obama's victory in 2008 - and they do not at present appear to be supporting the 44th President. If Obama can't hold them in his coalition, then he's going to lose. Sorry, but the Democrats' long-anticipated demographic eschaton just ain't here yet. George McGovern's grandson might be able to win in a walk by 2050, but it's still just 2010.

When it comes to ad hoc addenda, nothing quite beats the following chestnut. According to Kilgore, the biggest reason the GOP is in trouble in 2012 is because the field right now is just a bunch of retreads:

Republicans, like or not, are probably stuck with the presidential field they now have. And it's not a pretty sight.

Polls now show three Republicans bunched at the front of the pack -- Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. Romney is almost certainly running, but he failed to make an emotional connection with GOP voters in 2008. And doing so in 2012 will be even tougher, now that Romney is stuck trying to explain to Republicans the difference between Obamacare and the plan Romney imposed on Massachusetts.

This is really something, coming as it does from a Democrat. The last four times Kilgore's party has taken the White House from the GOP - in 1960, 1976, 1992, and 2008 - they did so with somebody who was a dark horse. And these weren't just your standard, run of the mill dark horses like Franklin Pierce or James Garfield or Warren Harding. These dark horses were a Catholic, an African-American, and two moderate Southern governors in the post-McGovern era of the party.

So, the GOP can't find a dark horse? Wasn't McCain just a little dark-horsey? The MSMers in the I-95 Corridor didn't think so circa 2006. They loved McCain, but then again they're not really major players in GOP electoral politics.

Toward the end of the piece, it becomes pretty clear that Kilgore's disregard for the GOP is fogging the lens just a little bit:

Sure, there some dark horses (sic). Tim Pawlenty has some insider support but no discernable rationale for a candidacy -- and a personality that makes Mitch McConnell look charismatic. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, a conservative favorite, could try to become the first sitting House member to win a presidential nomination since 1896. John Thune's main qualification seems to be that he looks very pretty on television. And then there's Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour -- just in case Republicans want to nominate a former big-time professional lobbyist who also sounds like Foghorn Leghorn...

Yep. Because Hillary Clinton had a "discernable rationale for a candidacy" and Barack Obama's "main qualification" was not that he gave a great speech in 2004. And, as we all know, Southerners with a twang have done horribly in presidential politics in the last 50 years...besides LBJ, Carter, Clinton, and Bush 43.

Two lessons emerge from this piece. One, you can't predict a presidential nomination contest more than two years out. Two, the opposition really can't do it.

Update, 2:45 PM: Ed Kilgore puts up a feisty, enjoyable response to my piece here, suggesting that the goal of his piece was merely to curb Republican enthusiasm about 2012 - and that I, as a well-known thrower of cold water on both parties, could certainly agree to that. Well, yes I can! But Ed has two sets of reasons for tossing his bucket of cold water. One set is strong, the other weak.

Here's the first set, which was basically the focus of his Salon piece:

I made three basic points: (1) the very turnout patterns that will help Republicans in 2010 will likely be reversed in 2012, with the current GOP focus on appealing to older white voters becoming a handicap rather than an advantage; (2) for all the talk of "fresh faces" emerging from the midterms, it is extremely unlikely that any of them will emerge quickly enough to run for president as Republicans in 2012; and (3) the existing Republican presidential field is at least as weak as the 2008 field, and could produce a weak nominee.

I think each of these is very weak. Point (1) deserves extra attention. I agree that demographic patterns will be different in 2010 versus 2008/2012, but whether that is an actual advantage depends on how the Democrats govern. This is something that I think has always been missing from the emerging Democratic majority thesis, which Ed leans on very heavily in his Salon piece. The Democrats have a clunky electoral coalition that they are not handling very well at the moment. It's one thing to promise the Earth, the moon, and the stars above to voters in 2008 when George W. Bush's job approval is at 25% and just about everybody is ready for a change. It's another thing to hold that coalition together through four years of governing. Polling data of adults (and thus including every conceivable presidential election voter) shows that, at this point, they need to make some improvements.

I'd be willing to meet Ed half-way and say that while the 2012 electorate will look better for the Democrats than 2010 electorate, the bigger question - and the whole issue of who should be optimistic or pessimistic - is whether it looks good enough for them.

Moving on to Ed's other points, I think his point (2) sets up a meaningless distinction between "fresh face" and "dark horse." I see people like Daniels, Pawlenty, Thune, and Pence as fresh faces, dark horses, whatever. I don't think the GOP needs somebody to come out of nowhere to save it in 2012 - and anyway, if such a savior emerged, I doubt Ed would think very much of him, either! Also, I think Ed's point (3) is really more of a reflection that, as a Democrat, he doesn't think much of Pawlenty, Thune, and Pence (all of whom I think could be formidable). If Ed wants to offer up an actual argument about why Thune would have limitations, I'd be interested in reading that. But it just rings hollow for him to emphasize the alleged facts that Thune's appeal is superficial (so was Obama's) or that Pawlenty does not have a compelling national interest driving a candidacy (neither did Hillary Clinton!). I say alleged because Thune isn't just superficial - he defeated Daschle in 2002, which was a big deal politically. And Ed is free to dismiss Pawlenty's Sam's Club angle all he wants, but (i) I think the Douthat/Salam thesis is a good one and (ii) doesn't this mean that Pawlenty does have a real reason to run?

Ed then outlines a second set of reasons that is substantially stronger:

That's all totally aside from the facts that the economy could improve by 2012, that the president remains relatively popular, and that Republicans may be unable to offer a credible alternative agenda for the country.

I agree with all of these entirely - and I would add two more big ones. First, historically the most stable governing coalition has strangely enough been divided government. If the GOP wins one or both chambers of Congress in 2010, a vote for Obama could thus become a vote to retain divided government. In that case, advantage Obama. Second, 2011-2012 seems like it will be the time for a major budget deficit showdown. Historically, these are brutal because politicians have to identify voters who will be losers - be it those who pay more in taxes, those who receive fewer benefits, or both. In the 1990s, the Republicans had a less-than-great experience with the politics of deficit reduction. It worked against George H.W. Bush in 1992 and against Bob Dole in 1996. It helped the GOP in the 1994 midterm, but they had no governing role in the 103rd Congress. Additionally, the Republicans could be fighting a budget battle from the relatively weak position of controlling just one chamber of Congress. Republicans should be concerned that they will not win enough seats in 2010 to fix any of the problems the country finds itself in, but just enough to get the blame.

I'll make a prediction for 2012 right now: whichever nominee does a better job of assigning blame for the nation's budget fiasco to the other guy will be the victor of that contest.

Now, Ed... how's that for some cold water!