Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse are partners in the Republican political and public affairs research firm Public Opinion Strategies. The firm is polling for candidates or super PACs in 12 of The Washington Post’s top 13 Senate races.
Whatever the precise size of the incoming wave — and we’ll leave it to forecasters and surfers to fight over that — most models are predicting a Republican takeover of the Senate, as well as gains in the House, following Tuesday’s midterm vote.
Such a victory gives the Republican Party a significant opportunity to recast itself in the eyes of voters. But let’s be clear: Winning on Tuesday will not necessarily portend success in 2016. After all, big GOP wins in 1994 and 2010 did not lead to a President Dole or a President Romney in the subsequent elections. In fact, the Republican Party hasn’t managed to string together three successful elections since the 2000-2002-2004 political cycles.
So what does a GOP win in 2014 mean for the coming presidential contest? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean:
It doesn’t mean we’ve solved the GOP math problem.
Democrats like to accuse Republicans of being bad at science, but in fact we’re really bad at math. Winning in a non-presidential-turnout year, when older and white voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate, should convince no one that we’ve fixed our basic shortfalls with key electoral groups, including minorities and younger voters.
Assuming that the Democrats replicate their 2012 electoral success with minority voters two years from now, and assuming that Hispanics grow as a percentage of the overall electorate, which they will, we calculate that Democrats will already have almost half (24 percent) of the votes they need to win a majority of Americans in 2016. To win 50.1 percent of the popular vote, we estimate, Republicans will need nearly 64 percent of the white vote — which would be a record for a non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate. Remember, Mitt Romney and John McCain won 59 percent and 55 percent of the white vote, respectively; and even in victory, George W. Bush took only 58 percent of the white vote in 2004. With the exception of candidates such as Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Republicans have hardly focused on courting minority votes in 2014.
Further, there is little evidence that GOP prospects are improving with younger voters, especially younger women. We can no longer depend on voters 45 and older to carry Republican candidates to victory (Romney won voters 40 and older, but still lost the election.)
It doesn’t mean we’ve solved the GOP map problem.
Republicans can win in red states. Tuesday should bear that out pretty well. But the challenge for the GOP long-term is winning in blue or purple states. Our success in states such as Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire on Tuesday may indicate that we’re getting back on track. That’s pretty important, because in 2016 we face the “Big Blue Wall” — the 18 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that have gone for the Democratic presidential candidate six elections in a row. They add up to 242 electoral votes, leaving the Democrats needing just 28 of the 183 electoral votes in the 18 toss-up states. Republicans were not able to put any Senate races in those Blue Wall states in play. Thus the GOP “strategy” is essentially to be perfect in purple states — not a game plan with a high probability of success.
It doesn’t mean we’ve solved the GOP image problem.
Even though President Obama is significantly less popular than he was two years ago, the GOP is not well positioned to capitalize because our party’s image has also gotten worse since 2012. In the most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, half of respondents had a negative image of the Republican Party — only the fourth time that has occurred in the past six years. (Reminder to Tuesday’s winners: Threatening impeachment or shutting down the federal government doesn’t endear you to middle America.)
Our focus groups and open-ended questions in polls find that voters unhappy with the GOP think the party is living in the past. The Democrats have also had success in hammering the Republican Party as favoring the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. That is a battle we will have to fight again in 2016.
While the Democrats aren’t in terrific shape on image, either (37 percent positive, 43 percent negative in the NBC poll), the gap between the two parties has widened since 2012. The Republicans are losing ground.
It doesn’t mean we’ve solved the GOP ground-game problem.
After the tremendous success the Obama campaign had in 2012 in mobilizing voters, the Democrats’ efforts to replicate that this year should surprise no one. And yet, we’ve been asked many times by skeptical Republican candidates and operatives if we believe that the Democrats could replicate their ground game in 2016 for a candidate not named Obama. Really? Does anyone actually want to take a chance on that? Just as digital outreach and advanced analytics will be integral parts of all campaigns for years to come, so will the ground game — and we’re still playing catch-up.
While Republicans made major strides this year in improving the kind of person-to-person contact with voters — door to door, on social media or through other means — that the Democrats dominated in 2012, Republicans continue to be at a manpower and technological disadvantage.
So that’s the bad news. But here is what a GOP victory on Tuesday does mean:
It means we get to pass legislation.
The last time the country split control of the executive and legislative branches between the parties was during the 110th Congress in 2007-2008. While President George W. Bush vetoed a number of bills passed by the Democratic Congress, he also signed major legislation. Given that Harry Reid’s Senate is now where bills go to die, there is no question that Obama will spend the next two years making a lot more “sign or veto” decisions before playing his next 18 holes.
In the next session, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner should seek to send Obama a blend of bills — some he can sign and others he can veto to keep his coalition happy. For those upset at the prospect of Republicans passing intentional veto bait for political gain, we’re sorry to disillusion you, but it’s happened before. In 2008, for example, the Democratic Congress passed an Intelligence Authorization Act that put tight strictures on the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Bush vetoed it because it took away too many interrogation tactics, a move the Democrats deployed as a campaign issue in 2008.
Being able to campaign in 2016 with a combination of “Here’s how we moved the ball forward” and “Here are the great bills Obama vetoed” will improve Republicans’ standing. That strategy will not necessarily help GOP legislators withstand the more difficult election terrain resulting from a larger, younger and more diverse electorate, but it will help the Republican presidential nominee point to policies that he or she would shepherd into law.
It means we get to become the party of new ideas and responsible leadership.
Republican governors have incubated new policy ideas that have transformed their states into business-friendly environments that will create jobs. More broadly, they have cut taxes and debt, improved the quality of education by providing more choices, and streamlined the delivery of state services.
We have got to be able to point to how those policies and ideas help America’s middle class. If we can undercut the Democrats’ message that the GOP is only for the rich, there won’t be much left for them to offer in 2016.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs,” Hillary Clinton declared recently. While Clinton was probably trying to out-Warren Elizabeth Warren, the darling of the rich, white liberal elite, the attack reflects just how out of touch the left wing of the Democratic Party is on economic issues. If the GOP stays focused on bread-and-butter issues of the economy, spending and foreign policy (it’s back!), we will be significantly better off than if we spend our time chasing conspiracy theories down rabbit holes.
Republican leadership in Congress will allow the GOP to develop and market new ideas that our 2016 presidential nominee — likely to be coming off a tough primary battle — could highlight, so the Democrats can no longer simply tag us as “the party of no.” Victory on Tuesday should make no one forget that the Republican Party still needs to strengthen the trust of voters in its ability to tackle the problems they face.
It is crucial that Americans have confidence in our ability to provide responsible leadership. That leadership is why governors such as Ohio’s John Kasich and Michigan’s Rick Snyder seem headed toward reelection in battleground states.
And the new GOP-led Congress will need to show it, too.