The 2014 mid-term election was a serious defeat for the Democratic Party and revealed problems the party will face going into the 2016 presidential elections.
In 2008, Barack Obama was an appealing, transitional candidate who won strong support from a number of groups — minorities, immigrants, young, unmarried women — who represent an increasing share of the voting population. These Democratic Party voters were not well represented in the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections and have not been active voters in past presidential elections. There is no assurance that they will vote in substantial numbers for a 2016 Democratic candidate.
The Obama administration embraced a post-industrial economic view that has alienated the Democratic Party from an important and formerly supportive constituency — non-college educated, non-minority working class voters. In the 2014 mid-term election this voting bloc gave nearly 75 percent of its votes to Republican Party candidates. This helps explain the Republican Party’s impressive 2014 mid-term election victories and why the Republicans and Democrats have begun to stress assisting the still wage-depressed working class. The latest employment numbers show substantial job growth, but almost no wage increase.
Our economy is now based on a global marketplace where developing nations manufacture and we consume. The economy has a small wealthy class, a financially diminished professional class, a large government assisted low-wage working class, and a government-dependent impoverished class. Further, the bread and butter concerns of the working class are replaced by social and cultural concerns of a well-educated liberal element.
The Obama administration bailed out Wall Street, but not Main Street and indebted working families. Unsurprisingly, the working classes and financially impacted resent this and have expressed their displeasure by an erosion of support at the voting booth for the Democratic Party.
The “toss-up states” — Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin — are must win states for the Democratic Party in 2016. Other swing states — Colorado, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida — are crucial as well. All of these states have a substantial population of non-college educated; non-minority working class voters still struggling in a low-wage, depressed economy. They voted heavily for Republicans in 2014 and the likelihood of their supporting a Democratic presidential candidate who speaks to their bread and butter concerns and values is not great.
In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary contest, Hillary Clinton reflected the concerns of this demographic and they gave her substantial voting support. If Clinton runs for and wins the 2016 Presidential nomination, she must effectively reach out to them once again and rekindle their support. After several cycles of Republican voting and a largely unresponsive Democratic Party, Clinton confronts a formidable challenge.
The Republican Party is in a good position to win the White House in 2016. However, the Republicans have substantial demographic and ideological challenges on the road to the presidency. They would have to nominate a moderate-sounding candidate who can reach out to minorities; address the illegal immigration issue; speak to the “soft” issues that appeal to suburban women voters, a crucial moderate demographic who are largely independent of strong party affiliation, and offer a plan for economic expansion and wage growth for middle and working class voters.
The 2000 and 2004 Republican presidential campaigns run by political strategist Karl Rove for George W. Bush are the model for Republican success. Bush embraced diversity, reached out to minorities, and ran as a compassionate conservative. Today, it’s doubtful that a Republican could receive the presidential nomination advocating these positions. The ideological base of the party has shifted hard right and the activists who vote in primary and caucus contests are far more conservative than the general Republican or overall voting population.
Demographics are also a problem for the Republican Party. As the population becomes more diverse, the Republican brand suffers. One can win a Republican nomination by calling oneself a severe conservative, taking regressive positions on social and cultural issues and calling impoverished citizens “takers” — but this is not a formula for victory in the new demographic reality. The crucial task for the Republican Party is not to self-destruct during the nomination process.
An inclusive, temperate sounding Republican presidential candidate like Jeb Bush is the preferred candidate if he could survive the nomination process. Scott Walker is popular with the party’s establishment and grassroots. He has the advantage of being a Midwesterner. Many in the party believe that the road to the White House runs through the Midwest. However, Walker is not a compelling speaker, untested on the national political scene, and may not survive intense news media focus.
The Democratic Party needs to reconnect with its working class demographic and secure a strong vote among the Obama constituencies. Here the best candidate is Hillary Clinton. Republicans fear her candidacy and will do all they can to sabotage her. The Democratic Party has a weak bench and no other real high profile contender (no offense to Joe Biden).
It is evident that both parties face significant challenges in 2016. Victory will go to the party that best navigates a stormy election sea.
Joshua Sandman is a professor of political science at the University of New Haven.
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