Can Democrats Keep the White House in 2016?

We'll see. The state of the economy will outweigh all other factors.
By Seth Masket ,

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks with members of the audience following a speech by Clinton on her approach to defeating the Islamic State terrorist network in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations on November 19, 2015. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A question I heard a lot during Thanksgiving was what things look like for November 2016. Regardless of who the Republicans end up nominating, do they actually have a chance of taking back the White House? My answer is a pretty annoying, equivocating, and not terribly precise one: The odds are around 50-50 the Democrats will hold the office.

Here's why. We know from a good deal of research that presidential elections tend to turn on a few key factors:

  • The strength of the economy.
  • Whether or not we're involved in a major war.
  • How long the party in power has held the office.
  • The ideological moderation/extremism of the candidates and parties.

Those factors do not have equal value. The economy outweighs them all, and candidate-specific factors probably matter very little, but aren't totally negligible. Also, yes, there will be campaigns, but chances are the two sides will be pretty well matched. And, obviously, we don't know who the Republicans will end up nominating (although the Democrats' choice seems pretty clear). But we can make some guesses about what things will look like in the months leading up to next year's election.

Predicting the economy is hardly foolproof, but a New York Times survey of economic forecasters a few months ago suggested that the economy will likely continue to do next year what it's been doing for the past few years: growing slowly but steadily. The economy should expand by a bit under three percent next year, with unemployment dipping below five percent and inflation staying low. This is good news for Democrats, but it may be mitigated by economic inequality. Even if the economy is performing well, fewer people may be benefiting from that, so most Americans may still feel like they're in a recession anyway even though the economy's been expanding for six years.

As for the war question, it's clearly gotten harder in recent decades to determine whether we're at war or peace. Nonetheless, voters only seem to turn against the president's party when lots of American soldiers are dying, as happened in 1952 (Korea) and 1968 (Vietnam). President Obama has demonstrated a reluctance to put substantial numbers of soldiers in harm's way. While not impossible, it seems unlikely we will see large numbers of boots on the ground overseas in mid-2016. This is also a mark in the Democrats' favor for next year.

The third factor, time in office, is a big help to Republicans. The last time a party won three consecutive terms in the White House was 1988, and that was aided by a substantial economic expansion. The last time before that was 1940, again after a huge economic recovery. Longer time in office builds complacency among the party in power and anger (a great motivator) within the out-party. Al Gore only won the popular vote by a hair in 2000, and lost the Electoral College, despite two terms of relative peace and prosperity. Republicans had two pretty successful terms under President Eisenhower but still lost the 1960 election. Democrats had two terms of strong economic growth and substantial policy achievements under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, albeit tempered by the Vietnam War, and still lost the 1968 election. Basically, it's very hard for a party to hold on for a third term unless the economy is booming or the incumbent is unusually popular, and neither is likely to be the case for Democrats next year.

Finally, there's ideological moderation/extremism. This is a much harder factor to estimate for 2016. Voters know Hillary Clinton and her policy stances pretty well, but they have little idea whom the Republicans will nominate or what that person will stand for. A more conventional candidate like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush may end up about as far to the right on policy as Hillary Clinton is to the left, at least in the eyes of voters. A more extreme nominee like Ted Cruz could put Republicans at somewhat of a disadvantage. Again, though, this would only be a modest disadvantage; voters consistently rated Barack Obama more extreme than Mitt Romney in 2012 but still voted for the former anyway.

And then there's the Donald Trump factor. Despite his polling advantage, Trump is still a real long-shot for the nomination. But should he somehow end up the nominee, it's pretty hard to know how to evaluate his stances. On policy, he's actually relatively moderate on many issues (other than immigration), but his demeanor is so outlandish as to make him appear pretty extreme. And then there's the non-trivial chance that his nomination would split the party, with party insiders refusing to endorse him and backing someone else instead.

So looking at these four factors, you have one substantial one—time in office—working in the Republicans' favor, the economy and war working modestly in the Democrats' favor, and ideology simply too unpredictable to call at this point. In other words, the contest is a toss-up. We'll get a better sense of things in the spring once Republicans have settled on a nominee, but really, this contest is likely to remain a nail-biter until the very end.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.