The Democratic Party’s uphill path to 270 electoral votes in 2016

January 18

(Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

My Post colleague Dan Balz has some very interesting reporting from Democratic and Republican strategists.  Both groups seem somewhat pessimistic about the GOP’s chances in 2016:

A recent conversation with a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns raised this question: Which, if any, of the recent battleground states are likely to become more Republican by 2016? The consensus: very few.

That reality highlights one problem Republicans face as they seek to regain the White House after six years under President Obama. Lots of factors affect elections: The quality of the candidates, the state of the economy, the effectiveness of the campaigns. But in a country whose demographics continue to change, Republicans will begin this campaign with one significant disadvantage.

Demographics are certainly one factor worth considering.  But it’s worth taking a minute to see what a few of those others factors suggest.  It might give that veteran of GOP presidential campaigns more hope.

In April 2012, two other political scientists — Seth Hill and Lynn Vavreck — and I did a presidential election forecasting model for The Washington Post.  The model had only three factors: The change in gross domestic product in the first two quarters of the election year, the president’s approval rating as of June of that year and whether the incumbent was running.  That model forecast that Obama would win in 2012, and — although there is nothing magic about this model — it was ultimately accurate within a percentage point.

It is far too early to do a formal forecast for 2016.  The economic and political conditions in that year will be paramount.  But given that at least some in the GOP appear pessimistic as of today, it’s worth asking: If economic and political conditions in 2016 were the same as they are today, what would happen?  So assume that Obama’s approval rating is about 41 percent.  Assume that GDP has grown 1.6 percent in the first two quarters of 2016.  And, of course, no incumbent will be running.

Based on those assumptions, the model predicts that the Republican Party has a 64 percent chance of winning the presidency.  That is far from 100 percent, of course.  At the same time, it doesn’t suggest much cause for GOP pessimism in January 2014 — maybe even some Democratic pessimism, in fact.

What I’d tell strategists looking at state demographics and Electoral College math is this: In 2016,  states will swing — almost in uniform fashion — depending on the underlying political and economic fundamentals.  Battleground state demographic trends don’t insulate the Democratic Party from (potentially) a relatively unpopular president and (potentially) an economy that is growing but not very fast.  Even analysts who believe these demographic trends portend a long-lasting Democratic majority would agree with that, I think.

And consider this: Since the passage of the 22nd amendment limiting the president to two terms, only one time (1980-88) has the incumbent party held the White House for more than two consecutive terms.  The regularity with which control of the White House changes hands also suggests that the playing field may tip in the GOP’s favor in 2016.

To be clear, I’m not making a formal forecast here.  I’m just saying that political and economic fundamentals will likely need to improve — relative to what they are now — for the Democrats to be advantaged going into 2016.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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