6 Questions That Decide the 2016 Election

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By Ronald Brownstein – – – –

Every­one already knows the struggle for con­trol of the White House will be the biggest do­mest­ic story of 2016. The cam­paign has already gen­er­ated re­cord tele­vi­sion rat­ings and vol­can­ic erup­tions of vit­ri­ol. By Novem­ber, it is likely to be­come the most ex­pens­ive polit­ic­al race ever. Already, it is un­like any cam­paign Amer­ic­ans have seen be­fore.

But, as the song says, some fun­da­ment­al things ap­ply.

Pres­id­en­tial elec­tions are shaped by the col­li­sion of long-term na­tion­al trends and short-term polit­ic­al tac­tics. This year will be no ex­cep­tion. Some of the key ques­tions that will de­term­ine which party takes the pres­id­ency will be settled with­in the polit­ic­al sys­tem it­self; oth­ers will turn on events bey­ond the cam­paign. For me, six ques­tions, drawn from both cat­egor­ies, seem most likely to de­cide the out­come.

3. Is IS­IS ad­van­cing or re­treat­ing?

Apart from the struc­tur­al hurdle of win­ning three con­sec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial elec­tions (since World War II, only Re­pub­lic­ans man­aged the feat, from 1980 through 1988), the biggest chal­lenge fa­cing Demo­crats in 2016 may be the pub­lic ver­dict that Obama’s ap­proach to fight­ing ter­ror, and sta­bil­iz­ing the Middle East more broadly, has failed. The com­plic­at­ing factor is that most Amer­ic­ans also be­lieve the Re­pub­lic­an ap­proach (as defined by George W. Bush) failed; we have em­ployed both the vel­vet glove and the iron fist and lost faith in both. As the nom­in­ee, Clin­ton might suc­cess­fully sep­ar­ate her­self from Obama on these is­sues. But any Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate may be­ne­fit greatly if IS­IS loses ground—and will suf­fer if it grows more threat­en­ing.

4. Does job growth pro­duce wage growth?

If job growth con­tin­ues its re­cent tra­ject­ory (over 215,000 a month since Janu­ary 2013), the eco­nomy would cre­ate fully 10 times as many jobs in Obama’s two terms (around 12 mil­lion) as dur­ing Bush’s (1.2 mil­lion). But Obama has re­ceived little polit­ic­al cred­it for those gains be­cause wages and in­comes have lagged: Me­di­an in­come is lower today than in 2000. Faster wage growth would re­shape the eco­nom­ic de­bate in 2016.

5. What is Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing on Elec­tion Day?

The an­swer to this ques­tion may turn on the two im­me­di­ately above. But no single num­ber may mat­ter more than Obama’s stand­ing with voters. Exit polls found that roughly four-fifths of voters who ap­proved of Ron­ald Re­agan in 1988, Bill Clin­ton in 2000, and Bush in 2008 voted for their party’s nom­in­ee to suc­ceed them. Ex­actly 88 per­cent of the voters who dis­ap­proved of Re­agan and Clin­ton voted for the oth­er party’s can­did­ate; for Bush the num­ber was two-thirds.

6. Who will win Vir­gin­ia?

The Old Domin­ion may now be the state most likely to vote with the pres­id­en­tial win­ner. The Demo­crats’ con­trol of the “blue wall”—the 18 states that have voted Demo­crat­ic in every pres­id­en­tial elec­tion since at least 1992—means they can plaus­ibly reach 270 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes without cap­tur­ing either Flor­ida or Ohio, the states usu­ally con­sidered de­cis­ive. If the Demo­crats de­fend the blue wall, add New Mex­ico and Nevada (which lean strongly to­ward them), and hold Vir­gin­ia, they will win the White House if they can cap­ture any single ad­di­tion­al swing state like Iowa, New Hamp­shire, or Col­or­ado (not to men­tion Flor­ida or Ohio). For that reas­on, ex­pect much dis­cus­sion of Vir­gin­ia’s two Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors (Tim Kaine and Mark Warner) as pos­sible vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees—un­less Marco Ru­bio or Cruz win the GOP nom­in­a­tion. That would height­en Demo­crat­ic in­terest in Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment Sec­ret­ary Ju­li­an Castro, Demo­crats’ most cred­ible Latino op­tion.

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