Looking Forward: Congress to Campus, Party politics, and election prospects
Photo © Alexander McIntyre
Professor Philip Davies, Director of our Eccles Centre for American Studies writes:
In March of this year the Eccles Centre hosted its most recent week of Congress to Campus UK events. Twice yearly, in co-operation with the US Association of Former Members of Congress, the Centre masterminds a week of events featuring former Democratic and Republican Members of Congress. This year I was joined by Cliff Stearns (Republican-Florida) and Bob Carr (Democrat-Michigan) for a range of conferences, discussions and seminars with students, office holders, researchers and members of the public. We met more than 500 people, and among the many topics discussed the 2012 election results, and the parties’ future prospects, featured prominently.
The re-election of Barack Obama was followed by much speculation about demographic change in the USA, and the implied inevitable decline of the Republican Party in a country where, for example, projections suggest that one-third of the population will be defined as Hispanic/Latino by 2050.
This figure is especially telling. Latino voters made up 10% of the 2012 electorate. They voted 71% for Obama. This group of voters has increased as a proportion of the electorate steadily in recent elections, and has swung increasingly to back the Democratic presidential candidates. In 2004 the Latino vote for Democrat John Kerry was equivalent to 3.7% of the electorate. In 2008 Obama’s Latino vote made up 6% of the electorate, and in 2012, 7.1%. If this Democratic grip continues, the argument goes, as the Hispanic/Latino vote grows, then by mid-century the Democrats could have a bloc vote from this group alone amounting to 25% of the electorate.
There are other startling aspects of this demographic shift. In 1980 Ronald Reagan began his influential period as president with a clear victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter. At the core of this overwhelming result was the support of 56% of the white vote. Mitt Romney had the support of 59% of the white vote, and still lost. Almost 9 out of 10 American voters in 1988 were white, by 2012 this had fallen to about 7 out of 10.
Obama faced re-election as a president whose first term legislative achievements had provoked controversy, in a poor economic climate, facing a united Republican Party opposition. Republicans were confident of victory, but while there was a modest voter swing away from the president, the Republicans failed to erode his electoral appeal very much, and certain key groups, especially young voters, cast the majority of their votes for Obama. Pundits pointed to the Democrats’ more skilled use of social media – for fund-raising as well as messaging – and to a ‘ground game’ that amalgamated the latest data analysis with dogged door-to-door canvassing.
There was some schadenfreude that the hundreds of millions invested in the campaign by Republican supporter Sheldon Adelson, by Karl Rove on behalf of teams of Republican supporters and by other wealthy backers of Romney and Republican candidates had failed to achieve its aims. How could these investors save their party, it was asked, if the demographic imperative is against them.
This is all very plausible, but the decline of the Republicans is not a done deal, and those Republican political investors have plenty of opportunity if they remain interested. Certainly the potential for political investment remains strong if the appetite for it remains. Adelson’s losses in 2012 amount to tens of millions, but his estimated worth approaches $25 billion. Others are not so fortunate, but the Republicans could accumulate a considerable war chest. But do they have places to invest?
Of course they do. In 2012 the Republican presidential campaign was unsuccessful against the USA’s first African-American incumbent, and lessons need to be learned about modern campaigning. The Republicans’ campaigns for Senate seats were an exercise in failure and farce, as candidates who had been selected by deeply conservative primary electorates made statements extreme enough to alienate the general electorate not just in their home states, but via mass media, throughout the nation. Again, lessons must be learned. But the great Republican success in 2012 was in the US House of Representatives, where they retained control in spite of the Democrats receiving almost 1.4 million more votes.
The US House is gerrymandered. In most states the design of constituency boundaries is a political exercise, seen as a spoil of victory. The exercise is usually performed by some combination of the state governor and legislature. Republicans have been very successful in many state elections. After 2012 30 of the nation’s 50 governors were Republicans, and in 24 states the Republicans controlled the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature – the Democrats had similar one-party domination in only 14 states. The federal nature of US politics gives these states victories particular value. Most domestic policy spending is done at the state and local level. Political groups at state level can use ballot initiatives and referenda to influence the political agenda. A substantial rise in spending on state judicial elections in 2012 suggests an increasing awareness of the political potential at this level. The combination of these and other factors presents the Republican Party with substantial electoral opportunities in 2014 and 2016.
2014 will see the second midterm elections of Obama’s administration. The presidential party usually does not do well in midterm elections, especially in second midterms. The Democrats’ gain of four seats in 1998 is only example of a presidential party gaining House seats in a second midterm in well over a century. Turnout declines at midterms, and it may be that elements of the Obama electoral coalition that performed so well for the party in 2012 will be less enthusiastic without Obama on the ballot. In the Senate 21 of the seats up for election are held by Democrats, 14 by Republicans, and about one-third of the Democrat seats are in states that voted for Romney – the Democrats again present a large target.
In 2016, especially if there are not strong signs of recovery, the administration will face a disappointed electorate. And the American electorate has shown an inclination to change its presidency regularly. Since 1952 only once has a party held on to the presidency for more than two terms. President Obama will not be on the 2016 ticket, and while Democrat Hillary Clinton may be the best known potential candidate, the Republican stable – including Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio – looks healthy.
The Republicans have opportunities in the short term to maintain their strength at state level and in the House, to make gains in Senate, and to make a credible challenge for the presidency. They have to adapt their policies and their strategies to the changing demographics of the electorate. And while voting loyalties tend to remain influential over time, in the long term though a group’s political allegiances cannot be guaranteed. When I look at my US Latino grandchildren I am not sure whether either will be Republican or Democrat as adults, but I look forward to their campaigns for office.