By Doug Sosnik – – – – –
Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik served as a close adviser to President Bill Clinton and writes regular big-think memos on the state of American politics. Here’s his latest.
The 2016 presidential election is looking like it will be a matchup between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. While this election season has been full of surprises, it is likely that the most decisive period in the election has already passed, the outcome is set and this presidential election will be the first time since 1952 that Democrats will hold on to the White House for three terms in a row.
In a prior Politico article, I laid out the primary factors that have shaped the outcome of presidential election in eight of the last nine presidential elections: the state of the economy, the incumbent president’s job approval and how and when the nomination fight is settled. Right now, none of these factors is working in the Republicans’ favor.
Economic trends continue to be largely positive, with 3.3 million jobs created in the past 12 months. In the past two years, we’ve seen the most job growth in the country since 1999. Unemployment has dropped to less than 5 percent—a rate that most economists would say indicates full employment. The demand for more labor has finally begun to increase incomes for American workers. While it’s not exactly Morning in America, it’s undeniable progress and helps make the case for keeping a Democrat in the White House.
Obama’s support is also strong. According to the most recent Gallup poll, Obama now has a 50 percent job approval rating—his highest in two years. The average approval rating for presidents at this point in their final year in office is 47 percent. Obama’s relative popularity is also good news for Democrats.
The third factor—the Republican Party’s nomination process and timing—is likely to be the most significant dynamic pointing to another Republican loss in the presidential election. It’s hard to imagine a nomination process that could be more disastrous for the party. Ten months into the process, their voters are more disillusioned than they were before the nomination started, and the party is even more fractured than before.
Donald Trump’s dominance in the primary process has created a Faustian bargain for the Republican Party. At the same time that the towering figure has completely dominated the political debate in a very crowded primary field, he has managed to alienate a significant portion of Republican voters in addition to the emerging multi-racial American majority. He has galvanized tens of thousands of supporters who have felt left behind by today’s economy, as well as tens of thousands of voters who find his political agenda anathema to American values. Trump has been underestimated by the media and his opponents since his announcement last June, despite leading in the national polls since last fall (as reported by Trump once or twice) and winning well over half of his party’s primaries.
At this point in the campaign, it is difficult to see how Trump is denied the nomination in Cleveland. If the so-called party elders are somehow able to stop him, it’s likely that we’ll see a revolt within the Republican Party, with Trump supporters abandoning the GOP nominee in November. Conversely, if Trump emerges from the Cleveland convention as the Republican nominee, the party faces a different challenge with the sizable number of anti-Trump Republican voters who won’t turn out for him in November. In fact, the discontent with Trump is so pervasive among the party faithful, it is increasingly possible that a conservative will run as a third-party candidate in the fall. If that happens, it would all but ensure a Democratic victory on Election Day.
There is little doubt that Hillary Clinton will be the primary beneficiary of a split in the GOP as the likely nominee for the Democratic Party. Right now, she has a commanding delegate lead in a primary process that allocates pledged delegates proportionately, making a Sanders comeback virtually impossible. Sanders has won a significant number of states and racked up an impressive number of delegates, but even if he continues to gain ground and build on his delegate total, he won’t come close to threatening Clinton’s eventual nomination.
So, while Trump continues to navigate a Republican primary process that includes old-line party regulars who are increasingly desperate to deny him the nomination, Clinton needs to continue to expand the delegate gap between her and Sanders without alienating his supporters.
Until now, Trump has defied the laws of political gravity; but the fact that no major political party has ever nominated such an unpopular candidate for president is inescapable. The strategy that Trump used to appeal to Republican primary voters who are conservative and disproportionately white will work against him with the moderate, diverse electorate this November. It is difficult to understate the level of negative attitudes toward Trump. According to a February Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 64 percent of general election voters have a negative view of Trump, and only 25 percent give him a positive rating. Forty-three percent of respondents say they wouldn’t even consider voting for him. In addition, last month a Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll found that 75 percent of Hispanic respondents hold a negative view of Trump.
Trump’s polarizing effect on the electorate increases the structural advantage Democrats already have in the Electoral College. Due to the state-by-state distribution of votes, Democrats start with a base of 197 electoral votes, compared with 161 for the Republicans. It’s possible that Trump could outperform previous Republican candidates in the Northeast and industrial Midwest, due to their relatively large populations of less educated, older white voters who have helped him win big in several primaries.
He also has the potential to perform well in the traditional toss-up states of Ohio (18 electoral votes), Iowa (six electoral votes) and New Hampshire (four electoral votes) and to cut into traditional Democratic strength in Michigan (16 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes) and Wisconsin (10 electoral votes). However, Democrats have carried all three of these states in each of the past six presidential elections, and Clinton’s candidacy should get a significant boost from the large number of independent-leaning suburban voters who have been turned off by Trump’s campaign.
Plus, any relative advantage that Trump may have in the Northeast and Midwest is likely to be offset by his high negative ratings in fast-growing states in the South and West. In the past, many of these states have supported Republican candidates, but demographic changes have shifted the composition of the electorate, making the states more competitive for Democrats. Today, many of these states are increasingly dominated by younger, non-white voters. These voters are strongly opposed to Trump’s agenda in general, and his positions on issues like immigration in particular.
In recent elections, Democrats have made at least four states in the South and West lean Democratic or turned them into pure toss-ups in presidential contests: Virginia (13 electoral votes), Florida (29 electoral votes), Nevada (six electoral votes) and Colorado (nine electoral votes). While North Carolina (15 electoral votes), Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Arizona (11 electoral votes) remain Republican-leaning states, their changing demographics mean it is only a matter of time before they become blue states. A Trump candidacy has the potential to accelerate this political realignment in these fast-growing states.
These voting trends coupled with Trump’s positions on issues that greatly offend the fastest-growing groups of voters in our country provides Democrats with an ever-increasing number of electoral opportunities to build on their existing advantage to reach the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the White House.
These trends could have a great impact beyond the presidential election, and even determine control of the U.S. Senate. With Trump at the top of the ticket, no party has been more vulnerable to a political tsunami since 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president in a landslide and swept 12 Democratic incumbent senators out of office.
Senate elections increasingly reflect the presidential outcome in each state. There currently are only 16 incumbent senators (five Democratic and 11 Republican) who are holding seats in states that did not vote for their party in the last presidential election. Of the 11 Republican-held seats up for election this year, seven are in states carried by Barack Obama in 2012: Florida (open), Illinois (Mark Kirk), Iowa (Chuck Grassley), New Hampshire (Kelly Ayotte), Ohio (Rob Portman), Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey) and Wisconsin (Ron Johnson).
The strongest argument for a third-party challenge from a conservative presidential candidate wouldn’t be about winning the election, but rather to give Republican incumbents an opportunity to align with a candidate at the top of the ticket who isn’t Trump.
Regardless of how you do the math, the current environment paints a picture of a Republican Party at the verge of implosion during the most critical period in the presidential campaign. Assuming little changes, years from now people will look back at the decisive nine-day period in mid-October last fall when the stage was set for the 2016 elections. In this narrow window, Hillary Clinton soundly routed Bernie Sanders in the first and single most important Democratic debate of the season, Vice President Biden announced that he wouldn’t run for president and Clinton publicly demonstrated her strength and fortitude during 11 hours of testimony in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi—a hearing that resembled a Kangaroo Court. Meanwhile, loudly and in full view, sitting high atop the polls facing little or no resistance, Donald Trump was gathering steam toward the Republican nomination and a backward-looking Republican Party was gasping its last breath. And the same Republican Party that once viewed Trump as a laughingstock is now intent on undermining his candidacy.
Doug Sosnik was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and co-wrote a New York Times best-seller on the future of politics in the United States.