The Battle Of The 2016 Narratives

To a large degree, the narrative you believe will govern the 2016 elections depend on which party you want to see win. But what's the most likely outcome?

Campaign 2016

In two separate posts at The Glittering Eye, Dave Schuler highlights opposing arguments regarding which political party has the advantage heading into the 2016 elections. The conclusions that the two pieces reach couldn’t possibly be more opposite in how they see 2016 turning out for their respective parties. Since they both can’t possibly be right, though, it’s not at all clear that either one should be taken all that seriously.

First up, there’s Democratic Pollster Stan Greenberg, who forsees a big Democratic wave coming:

The United States is being transformed by revolutions remaking the country at an accelerating and surprising pace. Witness the revolutions in technology, the Internet, big data and energy, though just as important are the tremendous changes taking place in immigration, racial and ethnic diversity, the family, religious observance and gender roles. These are reaching their apexes in the booming metropolitan centers and among millennials.

As the revolutions interact, they are accelerating the emergence of a new America. Consider that nearly 40 percent of New York City’s residents are foreign-born, with Chinese the second-largest group behind Dominicans. The foreign-born make up nearly 40 percent of Los Angeles’s residents and 58 percent of Miami’s. A majority of U.S. households are headed by unmarried people, and, in cities, 40 percent of households include only a single person. Church attendance is in decline, and non-religious seculars now outnumbermainline Protestants. Three-quarters of working-age women are in the labor force, and two-thirds of women are the breadwinners or co-breadwinners of their households. The proportion of racial minorities is approaching 40 percent, but blowing up all projections are the 15 percent of new marriages that are interracial. People are moving from the suburbs to the cities. And in the past five years, two-thirds of millennial college graduates have settled in the 50 largest cities, transforming them.

Shifting attitudes were underscored in this year’s Gallup Poll when 60 to 70 percent of the country said gay and lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage, sex between an unmarried man and woman, and divorce are all “morally acceptable.”

The United States is emerging out of its revolutions as racially blended, immigrant, multinational and multilingual — and diversity is becoming more central to our multicultural identity.

Further, these revolutionary transformations have accelerated the growth of a new majority coalition of racial minorities, single women, millennials and seculars. Together, these groups formed 51 percent of the electorate in 2012, but our analysis of census survey data and exit poll projections indicates that they will comprise fully 63 percent in 2016. With these growing groups each supporting Hillary Clinton by more than 2 to 1 in today’s polls, it is fair to say that the United States has reached an electoral tipping point.

The Republican Party’s battle to defeat this new majority has reached a tipping point, too. The brand of the Republican Party today has probably not been as tarnished since the Watergate era.

(…)

For Republicans, 2016 will prove to be no normal election, because it will confirm that the new America is here and that the counterrevolution has lost. That is why I expect the result to be shattering for the Republican Party as we know it.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Republican political adviser who served as one of Mitt Romney’s most trusted adviser’s sees things differently:

Likewise, there are two statistical measurements that, more than anything else, will determine whether the White House changes parties in 2016: Obama’s job approval and the direction of the country, measured by whether voters think we’re on the right track or the wrong track.

In terms of job approval, Obama has been under 50 percent for most of his presidency. The most recent Real Clear Politics monthly polling average says just 45 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama has been doing, while 52 percent disapprove. If the president remains net negative, voters should expect to hear a lot from Republicans on how the Democratic nominee is really running for Obama’s third term.

The Real Clear Politics average also says 64 percent of all voters think the country is on the wrong track. Only 27 percent believe we are headed in the right direction. As with job approval, if this number stays inverted, it’s going to be difficult for a Democrat to win no matter what.

The only question is which Republican will reap the benefits.

Off the top, it’s important to remember where both Greenberg and Fehrnstrom are coming from. Notwithstanding whatever claims either one of them might make to the contrary, neither one should be considered an objective political analyst who is simply looking at the political model they find to be the most persuasive and sharing the conclusions that they believe that model points to. They are, instead, both partisans of long standing who have a history of making arguments that are designed to advance the interests of their respective parties, or to send a message to their party when they believe it isn’t acting in an advantageous manner. Analyses such as these are also intended to reach the eyes of members of the news media and the pundit class to put ideas into their head that could potentially end up being repeated further down the line, or to shape the way that the election itself is covered. Partisan analysts of this type are also not above making comments that are, in the end, designed as much to attempt to demoralize the opposition as anything else. None of these is meant to lessen the reputations of either Greenberg or Fehrnstrom, They are both very good at what they do and the arguments that they make are worthy of consideration. At the same time, and as always, it’s worth remembering that the arguments themselves may have ulterior motives behind them.

So with those caveats in mind, who has the better argument?

Greenberg’s argument, essentially, is one that we’ve heard in the past, and its’ one that does have some empirical evidence to support it. The American electorate is clearly changing, it is becoming less white and more culturally heterogeneous. Additionally, the voting blocs that have traditionally voted Republican are getting older while younger voters, who have been skewing Democratic, are becoming a larger part of the voting age population. It doesn’t take being an expert to see where this trend could inevitably lead as it continues and assuming that the voting behaviors of these voting cohorts don’t change, and it doesn’t look good for Republicans. At the same time, though, it’s worth remember that this is a warning that we’ve been hearing for several election cycles now and it hasn’t completely materialized. For one thing, this is because many of the growing voting groups — young people and Latinos specifically — tend to have lower voter turnout numbers than other parts of the population, meaning that their impact on election outcomes has been far less than some have thought. This has been especially true in the last two mid-term elections, both of which saw significant gains for Republicans. Even the 2008 and 2012 elections don’t necessarily help Greenberg’s forecast of a Democratic wave. The outcome of the 2008 election was influenced in no small part by the state of the economy and public rejection of the Bush Administration as a result of the Iraq War. Additionally, while the GOP lost the race for the White House in 2012, there was no wave at the Congressional or state level, and the fact that they were running against a popular incumbent in a year when the economy was doing well, which made the prospect of unseating the President unlikely to begin with. If the situation is similar in 2016 then Greenberg’s forecast of a wave would seem to be wildly optimistic.

Fehrnstrom’s argument, which relies principally on traditional polling information and public attitudes about the direction of the country, also has merit. It has generally been the case that if the incumbent President is viewed unfavorably then it is likely to be detrimental to his party even if he isn’t the one on the ticket. The impact of that number is enhanced if polling also reflects a pessimistic attitude on the part of the public in the traditional right track/wrong track poll. The evidence behind this analysis can be seen in any number of elections going back over the past thirty years or more. At the same time, though, Fehrnstrom’s analysis also tends to ignore the impact of the factors that Greenberg points out, which are slowly but surely changing the nature of the electorate, especially during Presidential election years when voter turnout is higher:

In one of his two posts on this issue, Dave lays out the likely outcomes in 2016 like this:

A. a wave election for Democrats in which Democrats take the White House, the Senate, and the House.
B. an election in which the Democrats take the White House and, narrowly, the Senate.
C. an election in which the Democrats take the White House, leaving the Senate and the House with Republican majorities.
D. an election in which Republicans take the White House, lose the Senate, and retain the House.
E. an election in which the Republicans take the White House and strengthen their majorities in both houses of Congress.
F. remarkable only in their banality.

Like Dave, I tend to think that most likely outcomes are the ones grouped in B through D, and that the odds of either a Republican or Democratic wave are fairly small. For one thing, the extent to which our politics is seemingly so evenly divided, albeit highly polarized, suggests to me that the likelihood of a wave in either direction seem rather unlikely. This would seem to be especially true if, as expected, the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton. Whatever one might say about Clinton, one can most assuredly say that she is a candidate about whom almost everyone has made up their mind. It’s unlikely that people who don’t like Clinton at this point some 23 years after she became a fixture in American politics are going to change their mind about her, for example, and it’s also unlikely that those who support her strongly are suddenly going to reject her in favor of a Republican. For reasons I’ve noted before, it still seems more likely than not that Clinton would win the 270 Electoral Votes she needs to become President than that any Republican would do so, but there is still a narrow avenue of victory for the right Republican candidate for President. Obviously, that analysis changes if the Republicans end up nominating a polarizing candidate like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

On the Congressional side, the possibility of anything other than minor change in either chamber seems slim at best. Thanks to the redistricting after the 2010 census and the small number of competitive seats, the odds that the Republicans will lose the House are, at this point exceedingly low. Is it possible that could happen under the right conditions? Yes, but I’d put the odds of the GOP losing control of the House at something significantly below 10% at this point. Things are slightly different in the Senate since Republicans will have to defend seats they won in 2010, including six seats in states that President Obama won in both 2008 and 2012, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Florida. As things stand right now, Republicans are in better shape in some of these states than they are in others, however if the GOP ended up losing all six seats next year and did not offset those loses with a pickup elsewhere, then they would lose control of the Senate. That would require Democrats running the table, though, and that’s not entirely likely. Instead, as of right now, the most likely outcome is that the GOP retains a majority in the Senate in 2016 albeit a smaller one than the 54-46 majority they have today.

As always, these are early predictions worth the pixels they’re written with, but that’s what I think the picture looks like. Partisans in both parties will hope for either Option A or Option E, of course, and those are the people Greenberg and Fehrnstrom are addressing themselves to ultimately. Given the nature of how our elections, go though, it seems fairly clear that Dave’s Option F, another banal election filled with partisan nonsense, is what we’ll end up getting no matter what the final result is.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    of course both of these analyses ignores the question of “What if the party nominates someone batsh*t crazy or a Socialist.”

  2. Mu says:

    I just don’t see how any Republican candidate can survive this nomination battle without enough statements that will have him slaughtered by HRC. Even the presumably non-lunatic candidates like Rubio, Bush, and Christie have by now put out enough rightwing stuff to become unelectable by the independent middle. At the same time HRC has no gotten any competition other then from the left which she can safely ignore as none of the very wingnut left would ever vote for a Republican. Plus she has gun control to throw at the liberal wing.
    If I had to put down money it would be on C.

  3. Tillman says:

    Even B is optimistic for Democrats.

  4. humanoid.panda says:

    The Real Clear Politics average also says 64 percent of all voters think the country is on the wrong track. Only 27 percent believe we are headed in the right direction. As with job approval, if this number stays inverted, it’s going to be difficult for a Democrat to win no matter what.

    Right Direction/Wrong Track numbers in September 2012 were 62W/31R. Which is why President Romney is in the White House now.

    Seriously- both Greenberg and Fehnstorm are hacks, but Greenberg at least tries to make things interesting!

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    Keep in mind that Fehrnstrom, was one of those convinced that Romney would win in 2012.

  6. Tillman says:

    @humanoid.panda: The “right direction” question has always struck me as flawed. Unless the pollster asks follow-up questions for why a respondent thinks the country is going well or not, it can be used by anybody to justify a political attack.

  7. Bill Lefrak says:

    Staggeringly naïve.

    Narratives have nothing to do with American elections. Not anymore. That ship sailed and sunk long ago. Our elections now are determined by what percentage of underclasses viz. the gross total actually vote. If the underclasses show up in sufficient numbers, the Democrat wins. Plain and simple.

    We already know in advance to within very small margins how the vote will break down along lines of gender, age, race, education, socioeconomic status, union membership, etc. We know in advance the Democrat nominee. Only the respective turnout percentages remain to be decided.

    Perhaps in an ultra close election there could be some relevance whom is on the GOP ticket. Obviously for example a Jeb Bush-John Kasich ticket slightly could change the final votes respectively in Florida and Ohio, which theoretically could make a difference in the final outcome. Again however it would take a very close election. Something along the lines of 1976 or 2000. Very unlikely.

    If the poverty classes are the same percentage of the total voting electorate as 2012, Hillary will be the next president. If however the poverty classes show up at midterm levels, i.e., 2010, 2014, then the GOP nominee will be the next president. It’s actually that simple.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    I’m thinking (hoping) that option C prevails, because I’m having a hard time believing that Democrats make any real inroads in Congress.

    C. an election in which the Democrats take the White House, leaving the Senate and the House with Republican majorities.

    Turnout will be everything in this election.We know Republicans are now convinced that we need to burn it down in order save it, the question is are Democratic constituencies so unmotivated that they’re willing to turn the entire federal government over to people who hate government?

    My gut tells me that Democratic turnout will not be sufficient – despite the ‘First Woman President’ feature – and a Republican, Rubio(?) will win. What would really get Democrats to turn out would be the nomination of either Ted Cruz (incredibly negative, unpleasant and reactionary) or Jeb Bush (oh no .. another Bush).

  9. humanoid.panda says:

    @Bill Lefrak:

    Narratives have nothing to do with American elections. Not anymore. That ship sailed and sunk long ago. Our elections now are determined by what percentage of underclasses viz. the gross total actually vote. If the underclasses show up in sufficient numbers, the Democrat wins. Plain and simple.

    Tsar Nicholas is back!

  10. Neil Hudelson says:

    @humanoid.panda:

    Hmm, you might be right. If Mr. LeFrak starts using phrases like “If you know what I mean” preceded by sentences so gobbley-gooked that no one could possibly know what he means…then yeah, for sure it’s Nicky.

  11. humanoid.panda says:

    @al-Ameda:

    My gut tells me that Democratic turnout will not be sufficient – despite the ‘First Woman President’ feature – and a Republican, Rubio(?) will win. What would really get Democrats to turn out would be the nomination of either Ted Cruz (incredibly negative, unpleasant and reactionary) or Jeb Bush (oh no .. another Bush).

    The problem with this is that everyone’s model of the politica universe is based on the 2008 election, when Obama was the magical unity president. However, in 2012, his magic was tinted, Democrats were not enthusiastic, and throughout the electoral season, people were predicting that minority voters won’t show up- and yet, the end result was a rather convincing victory. The lesson is that Democrats don’t need off the chart enthusiasm to win elections: just very good campaign infrastracture, reasonably growing economy, and a healthy fear of the GOP. If nothing drastic happens between then and now (say, a real Clinton scandal or a Paris style attack in the US in the fall), I think they will have all three.

  12. Tony W says:

    @Bill Lefrak: “Poverty classes?” Really? Wow. Thank you for demonstrating so succinctly why the Republicans have trouble winning when turnout is good and district boundaries are drawn fairly.

  13. Michael says:

    Watch the unemployment rate reported from January, 2016 to November, 2016. If the unemployment rate goes down by at least .2%, Clinton should win. If the unemployment rate goes up, doe snot move, or barely budges (down.1%), the GOP nominee will win.

    The only thing that should muck this is up an unusual event such as Watergate or a 9/11 like incident.

    Otherwise, that will predict the winner.

  14. Gustopher says:

    I’m guessing B.

    The Republicans have no good candidate to put up against Clinton, and the Presidential election is hers to lose.

    The Senators up for election now were last up for election in an off year, so the calendar and thew map favors the Democrats. If I had to guess, it will be 50-50, with the Democratic VP breaking the tie. The Democrats will lose the senate in 2018.

    And, hopefully, a bunch of Supreme Court justices will retire in fine health in 2017 or early 2018, and live long productive lives in the private sector, so they can be confirmed more easily with Democratic votes.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Tillman: I think the country is on the wrong track. And has been ever since we started electing Republicans big time again in the early 80s. When people talk about the country going to perdition, why do they never notice that Rs have largely been in charge?

    Without exploring who and why, doesn’t seem to me to be as strong a metric for Rs as Mr. Fehrnstrom thinks.

    Obama couldn’t be re-elected because nobody liked Obamacare. A fair number of people disliked it for being too little. Apparently enough for O to be handily re-elected. (I still love that it turned out that 47% of the people WOULD vote for Mitt.)

  16. Stan says:

    @Bill Lefrak: “Our elections now are determined by what percentage of underclasses viz. the gross total actually vote. If the underclasses show up in sufficient numbers, the Democrat wins. Plain and simple.”

    “If the poverty classes are the same percentage of the total voting electorate as 2012, Hillary will be the next president. If however the poverty classes show up at midterm levels, i.e., 2010, 2014, then the GOP nominee will be the next president.”

    Thanks for your comments about the 47%. They’re probably accurate, but there’s more to be said. Around 70% of Jews and Asian-Americans will vote for Hillary. Arab-Americans and Moslems are even more Democratic. Ditto for non-Cuban Hispanics and African-Americans. Not all of these groups are in the “poverty classes”. But most of them associate the Republican party with disdain for the plebs and with more than a touch of ethnic bigotry. Why a political party in a country like ours would want to alienate so many groups is a mystery, but it’s clear that the Republicans have done it, and not by accident.

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    @Tillman:

    The Illinois Democratic Party may be screwing up Scenario B even as we speak in their failure to get behind Tammy Duckworth for Senate.