Handicapping the Republican Party’s Odds in the 2016 Presidential Race

Mitt Romney was a good presidential candidate; he ran a good campaign in the 2012 election.  He had the necessary experience.  He stayed on message, performed well in the debates, and by most accounts, appeared presidential.   Romney also had the benefit of not flying into a strong economic headwind; the state of the economy certainly did not provide Barack Obama with an insurmountable advantage (although, the economic fundamentals were perceived by some as far more dire than the actually were).  Yet, Romney lost in spite of his attractive qualities and Obama’s potential vulnerabilities.  The election was not even especially close.  Obama won 51 percent of the popular vote and captured 332 votes (61.7%) in the Electoral College.  Romney was only able to win two states, Indiana and North Carolina, that John McCain failed to capture four years earlier.  So why was Mitt Romney unable to unseat Obama?

My answer to this question is that Romney was handicapped by the positions he was forced to adopt in the Republican primaries (esp. economic policy and immigration), so much so that his chances to win the election were in jeopardy even before he secured the Republican nomination.  The Republican Party (to which Romney was no exception) has been increasingly adopting an aggressive pro-capital, anti-tax platform over recent decades.  The problem with this platform is that it is geared towards attracting a shrinking proportion of the electorate.  The growth in economic inequality (especially in terms of the distribution of wealth) has reduced the proportion of the electorate that directly benefits from policies that benefit capital.  The increasing economic gap is even more pronounced among racial and ethnic minorities, hindering Republican efforts to attract support from these growing segments of the electorate.   Additionally, Republican efforts to attract Latinos and African Americans by stressing socially conservative issue positions (opposition to abortion and gay marriage) have failed to make any perceptible inroads with these groups—which Reince Priebus noted is a long-term problem.  In other words, my claim is that Romney’s 2012 campaign was sunk by deeply systemic opposed to idiosyncratic causes.

Yet, much of the commentary surrounding the election has failed to key in on these points.  Many pundits attributed Romney’s loss to trivial factors, such as a failure to get his message across, Obama’s superior ground game (with Facebook apps!), Hurricane Sandy, or even failing to sit down with Bill O’Reilly for a special broadcast the night before the election.  A simpler explanation is that Romney’s policy positions (and the Republican positions more generally) were targeted at a segment of the electorate that was simply too small to win in the absence of strong short-term forces in the Republican’s favor.  Romney got his message across; it was simply the wrong message (at least in an electoral sense).

Given these facts, the path towards 270 electoral votes in 2016 seems uphill.  Ethnic and racial minorities will likely make up at least 30 percent of the electorate in 2016, up from 28 percent in 2012 and 26 percent in 2008.  Moreover, the economy is currently on the rebound compared to 2012, unemployment is down (6.1 compared to 7.8), job creation is at its highest level since 2006 and perceptions about the state of the economy continue to improve.  These trends suggest that the Democratic nominee will likely inherit a better economy compared to the economy Obama won with in 2012.   Thus, demographic changes and the economic fundamentals appear to be moving in favor of the Democratic Party.  Given the likelihood that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee in 2016, it is hard to imagine the Democratic candidate in a position that is worse than Obama’s in 2012.

So what can the Republican Party do to offset these ongoing trends that are working in favor of the Democratic Party?  The Republican Party is going to have to make a concerted effort to expand their coalition, presumably by moderating their issue positions on several key dimensions.   So what candidates could possibly fit the bill?

1.)  Jeb Bush: an obvious place to start would be to nominate a candidate that is a credible advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, such as Jeb Bush.  Romney (and the Republican Party generally) won just over 20 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, a number that is likely unsustainable over the long-term. Hard line immigration policies might play well in the primaries, but is a killer in the general election.  Bush, although tentative about his future agenda, has signaled his position as an economic moderate within the Republican Party, can speak Spanish and has a Latina wife, is from a state that the Republican Party has to win, and has the necessary experience as a governor.  Bush would be a candidate that is well positioned to make inroads among groups that have not historically been in the Republican coalition.  However, some of Bush’s recent statements leave you wondering what his chances in the Republican primary might be?

2.)  Rick Perry: he has recently been sporting these smart guy glasses, which might attract the hipster vote, but is otherwise the same candidate that oversaw a dumpster-fire of a 2012 campaign.

3.)  Chris Christie:  Christie recently signed state level version of the DREAM Act in New Jersey and has signaled his willingness to support national level reform, but has not advocated a specific position on national level immigration policy.  His position on economic policy is in line with most other national level Republicans, although he is more progressive on some social issues (e.g. gun control).  I am not a big believer in the idea that low-level scandals can take down a political career, but Bridgegate is a potential issue.

4.)  Paul Ryan: Ryan is the embodiment of the Republican free-marketeering and pro-capital economic policies that I am arguing are hindering the Republican Party’s national-level ambitions, so I believe his chances to attract a core group of new supporters is limited.  He is akin to Mitt Romney 2.0, talented, articulate, good looking—but appeals to an audience that likely too small to win.

5.)  Others—Mike Daniels, Scott Walker, Rick Scott, and Bobby Jindal, among others: I believe these candidates all face the same fundamental problem as Ryan; the only difference is that they are less talented politicians.

From where I sit, it seems like Jeb Bush is the Republican candidate currently in the field with the greatest ability to expand the Republican coalition enough to compete against what will likely be a very strong Democratic challenge.  The Democrats have won the popular vote in 5 out of the last 6 presidential elections and demographic and economic trends are cutting in the party’s favor—the status quo Republican candidate is increasingly less viable.  As I’ve pointed out elsewhere on the QP, the American party system is remarkably stable, so it is likely that the Republican Party will field competitive candidates in future elections.  The question is what candidate in the current Republican field can offer a credible alternative to the existing status quo?



About Joshua Zingher

Josh Zingher is an assistant professor at Old Dominion University. His research focuses on voting behavior, elections, and representation.

One Reply to “Handicapping the Republican Party’s Odds in the 2016 Presidential Race”

  1. the republicans control 39 states…including Ohio and Florida….how can the democrats win???????…..voter restrictions have worked ,since the voting rights act was castrated….accessibility to voting has been “narrowed”…it is not 2007-08…we cant register and vote in one shot…no 35-40 day lead time…RESTRICTION/S……………….

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