Commentary Magazine


The GOP’s Ongoing Challenges

Republicans have plenty of reasons to believe that the 2014 mid-term elections will be favorable, and maybe very favorable, for them. But that doesn’t necessarily prefigure success in 2016, as this story by Dan Balz of the Washington Post demonstrates.

Mr. Balz asked a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns which, if any, of the recent battleground states are likely to become more Republican by 2016? Answer: Very few. According to Balz:

From 1992-2012, Democrats built a base that rivals or exceeds that of the Republicans in the earlier period [1980-2000]. Eighteen states and the District have voted Democratic in each of the six presidential elections. They represent a total 242 electoral votes, according to the current allocation. Three other states, with a total of 15 electoral votes, have backed the Democrats five times.

Meanwhile, Republicans won 13 states in those six elections, but because most of them were smaller states, their electoral votes totaled just 102. The biggest consistent GOP state in this period has been Texas, with 38 electoral votes. Five other states backed the GOP nominee in five of the six elections, for an additional 56 electoral votes.

Adding together the states that voted Republican or Democratic in at least four of the six elections gave Democrats 281 electoral votes and Republicans 219. Only two states — Colorado and Florida, with a total of 38 electoral votes — were won three times for each party in those six elections.

Key states that were once genuine toss up states, or leaned Republican, are now much more reliably Democratic. “Given the current alignment, the Republicans must find states that have been voting Democratic and convert them to their column in 2016,” according to Balz.

Will they succeed?

William H. Frey, a demographer and census expert at the Brookings Institution, analyzed nine key states and found the following: five—Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia—are definitely moving toward the Democrats because of their growing diversity. Three states—Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin—are genuine toss-ups but aren’t moving in the GOP’s direction. Ohio is one state that could become more hospitable to Republicans, because aging white baby boomers continue to make up a large part of the population there.

Beyond those nine states, Frey “sees some glimmers of hope for Republicans in Michigan and Pennsylvania, if the GOP can find the right candidate.” On the other hand, Frey envisions potential problems for the party in states such as Arizona and Georgia, which he said could be toss-ups by 2016 and could lean Democratic in the long run.

Balz includes the caveat that nothing is static in politics, candidate quality matters, and President Obama’s standing with the electorate will influence how people vote in 2016. Still, he concludes, “Republicans have considerable ground to recapture to win the presidency, and underlying trends have not been helping them.”

The danger for the GOP is that in focusing on 2014, it fails to do the work–in terms of policy reforms, governing vision, outreach, tone and countenance, and recruitment–that is necessary for it to win the presidency in 2016. It turns out that the 2010 mid-term election was something of a false dawn for Republicans, at least when it came to 2012. They would be fools to commit the same error again or underestimate the magnitude of the long-term challenges still facing the GOP.