There are no electoral locks

Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign. (Reed Saxon/Associated Press)

Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign. (Reed Saxon/Associated Press)

Which party is the favorite in the 2016 presidential election? I have no idea. 2020? No idea. 2024? Are you nuts? No one has any idea.

And yet some pundits, and a lot of liberal activists, are convinced that Democrats are heavy favorites in each of those elections. Case in point: Noam Scheiber thinks that Senate Democrats should abolish the filibuster because “they’re likely to win the presidency a lot more often than Republicans over the next 20 to 30 years.”

As I wrote a few days ago, this sounds suspiciously like the old Republican “electoral lock” that seemed so obvious to everyone just before Bill Clinton won the White House and Democrats started regularly out-polling Republicans in presidential elections. It wasn’t just the Electoral College, people had all sorts of explanations, including a nutty one about Republicans being a “daddy party” and … oh, you don’t want to know. All of it worked to conclude that Republicans would keep the White House forever — while Democrats were locked into the House. And it all collapsed very quickly.

At least the demographic explanation seems to be structural. But while surely the percentage of Latinos in the electorate will grow, there’s no certainty that they will remain as heavily Democratic as they seemed in the last few presidential election cycles — which were set up very well for Democrats in general.

For now, at least, the best explanation for the last few elections is also the best explanation for the 1968 to 1988 Republican victories: it’s mostly the fundamentals. It’s mostly the economy, war and peace, and other presidential successes and failures.

Yes, it’s possible that Republicans will manage to turn a large and growing ethnic group which currently tilts solidly towards Democrats into another group that is solidly with the Democrats. It happened, after all, with African Americans. But it’s not something that’s happened yet, and there’s every reason to believe that before long Republicans will try hard not to have that happen. And, at the end of the day, that’s probably all it will take.

Basically, I agree with Reid Wilson’s Rule of Politics (if not with all his supporting details) that “the only constant is change.” And it’s a rule that’s easily overlooked; it always seems that the recent election shows the path going forward, but that’s been wrong as often as it’s been right. Just ask Democrats after 1964, or those Republicans after 1988.

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