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Electoral College: Are the Democrats Inevitable in 2016? (Spoiler: No)

I was asked by a reader for my thoughts on a blog post that was recently republished on the Houston Chronicle website.  Read the whole thing and come back, but the key conclusion is here:

Reality-check on the 2014 results (Chris Ladd, GOPLifer)

This means that the next Presidential election, and all subsequent ones until a future party realignment, will be decided in the Democratic primary. Only by sweeping all nine of the states that remain in contention AND also flipping one very solidly Democratic state can a Republican candidate win the White House.

I responded to the reader by email, but I decided to post a slightly cleaned up version here.

Yes, at the moment every single one of the most commonly polled Republican candidates loses to Hillary even if you gift the Republican all of the states they are behind in by less than 5%. Yes, if you add up all the states where the Democrats have averaged a greater than 5% lead over the last five presidential elections, they are only a handful of electoral votes away from winning and only need to win one or two of the historically close states to win, where the Republicans have to almost sweep those states to win.  See my “The Race Begins” post for more thoughts on this.

If this was Fall 2016 and things still looked like this, then yes, it would be pretty close to inevitable that the Democrats were cruising to an easy victory.

HOWEVER, it is only 2014, and once we get into full fledged campaign mode, Hillary has lots of weakness that can and will be exploited by the Republicans. A lot depends on who the Republicans nominate, but if they manage to nominate someone that is capable of sounding reasonable to the “median voter” like a Jeb Bush, or they nominate someone like Paul who would scramble things up a bit by having a mixture of positions that slice across issues in a very different way than other Republicans, then we will perhaps see some interesting dynamics.

If you look at my “Tipping Point” comparison, you see that the worst off of the five best polled Republican candidates (Paul) is currently behind by 8.8% in the tipping point state.

chart-14

(Click through on the image for more detail.)

An 8.8% margin sounds like a pretty big lead for the Democrats, but actually, it means if the Republicans are able to flip 4.4% of voters through the campaign process (assuming uniform movement in all the close states) then they can win.  4.4% doesn’t seem quite as insurmountable, does it?

Now, things are pretty highly polarized right now, so changing the minds of almost 5% of voters may still be a tall order.

BUT, in the next two years a lot can happen:

  • If you have Hillary being slimed to within an inch of her life by every smear you can probably think of…
  • If you have the Republican nominate someone that doesn’t immediately just “ooze” crazy or slimeball… not to the left leaning folks who would think that of any Republican, but to those rare birds in the middle that really could go either way…
  • If the Republicans nominate someone who really comes across as a likable person… and who doesn’t end up having to destroy their appeal to general election voters in order to win the nomination…
  • If Hillary makes some silly mistakes that make her seem cold, distant or unlikable…
  • If the economy ends its growth streak and goes back into recession…
  • If there are more things going on with the Obama administration either in foreign policy or domestically that make the Democrats look incompetent…
  • If the public just plain has a strong “give the other side a chance now” feeling, which is common after eight years, regardless of who has been there and what the current issues of the day are, or even who the specific candidates are.

If you get a confluence of a few of these things, it is pretty easy to see 5% of voters deciding to switch from their preference from Democrat to Republican, making a Republican win quite possible.

(And if it isn’t Hillary for whatever reason, of course everything changes, but despite her potential negatives, Hillary is probably stronger here than any of the other “if it isn’t Hillary” people who are occasionally mentioned.)

Don’t get me wrong, the Democrats have a clear advantage in 2016. (In the Senate too, although I haven’t done any analysis of that myself.) The Republicans are starting from a very real disadvantage. If I had to put odds on it, I’d give the Democrat maybe a 70% or 75% chance of winning in 2016. But Ladd made it sound almost completely inevitable in that article.

It isn’t inevitable. The Republicans have to get somewhat lucky. Or the Democrats have to screw up. But the Democrats have a tendency to screw up. So I wouldn’t count the Republicans out by any means. There are still lots of ways for them to make up the deficit and win, despite their disadvantages going in.

Bottom line, I agree with the article that the Democrats are heavily favored in 2016 and have a lot of structural advantages… but I think Ladd overstates it by quite a bit.

In the original email to my reader, I then went on to speculate about 2020 and beyond, specifically that assuming a Clinton victory in 2016, I feel there are high odds that she ends up as a one term president, despite current Republican structural disadvantages. But it is only 2014, so maybe I’ll just wait a little while for that prediction. :-)

Edit 18:36 UTC to add “If it was Fall 2016” comment.

Edit 19:19 UTC for minor spacing and wording fixes.

Edit 2015-01-10 07:28 UTC to add the “Electoral College:” prefix to the title

@abulsme tweets from 2014-11-15 (UTC)