Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well....
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The White House. (Photo: Orhan Cam/Shutterstock)

The White House. (Photo: Orhan Cam/Shutterstock)

Chris Ladd recently wrote a post at the Houston Chronicle explaining why, despite the Republicans' strong performance this month, they are at best a long shot for the 2016 presidential election. Why? Because of what Ladd dubs "The Blue Wall." Behold:

blue-wall

(Map: 270towin.com/Chris Ladd)

As Ladd explains:

The Blue Wall is block of states that no Republican Presidential candidate can realistically hope to win. Tuesday that block finally extended to New Hampshire, meaning that at the outset of any Presidential campaign, a minimally effective Democratic candidate can expect to win 257 electoral votes without even trying. That’s 257 out of the 270 needed to win.

Also, if we include Virginia as a brick in that wall, Democrats start off with an automatic Electoral College win.

Here's what's wrong with this argument: Note the use of the phrase "a minimally effective Democratic candidate." Ladd is pinning a lot on the quality of the candidate. But candidate qualities tend to be way over-valued in these sorts of electoral calculations. Yes, the Democrats could really blow it by nominating someone seen as ideologically extreme or clinically insane, but they're not likely to do that. In most elections, it's very hard to discern much of an effect of the candidate's personality or capabilities. The candidate's home state could matter (a nominee from Florida would have a slightly better chance of winning that state for his or her party), but beyond that, not much.

Hillary Clinton would inherit virtually all of Barack Obama's enemies, but not necessarily all of his allies.

What does matter? To a great extent, the economy. If the economy is growing strongly or even modestly in 2016, Democrats will have a pretty solid chance of keeping the White House; the Blue Wall will hold. But a mild or severe recession would cause that Blue Wall to crumble like a house of cards. And it won't be a great surprise which of the Wall's bricks give way first—just start with the most conservative states in the Blue Wall and work toward the more liberal ones. Virginia would go, then Nevada, and then maybe New Mexico. Indeed, that's exactly what the map looked like just 10 years ago when John Kerry sought to depose an incumbent president during a period of modest economic growth. And if things get really bad, the Democrats could lose Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. None of these states is a guaranteed lock for Democrats, and indeed, Republicans have won a number of key state elections there in recent cycles.

Something else working in the Republicans' favor in 2016 is history: it's pretty rare for one party to hold onto the White House for three consecutive terms. The last time that happened was the 1988 election; before that, it was 1940. This is partially because the incumbent party's nominee is not actually the incumbent. Sitting presidents tend to get a modest boost in the polls; not so much their would-be successors. And partially, there may be some party fatigue that occurs. Hillary Clinton would inherit virtually all of Barack Obama's enemies, but not necessarily all of his allies. Again, that doesn't make it impossible for her to win, but even if she's tied to a fairly popular Democratic president, that doesn't necessarily give her a real leg up in the contest. Just ask Al Gore.

Chances are, both parties will nominate reasonable competent and qualified candidates, and the election will largely turn on how voters view the state of the country (read: economic growth) and how much they credit or blame President Obama for it. If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, no Blue Wall will keep upset voters from tossing them out.

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