Want to make sense of next year’s presidential election? Try standing on your head. For in 2016, up is down and down is up.
Let’s start with the Republican candidates. From Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney, there’s a consistency to GOP presidential nominees. With the exception of George W. Bush, the nomination has gone to candidates in their mid-60s or beyond – average age: 66 – all running a second or third time.
Meanwhile, Democrats for the most part have followed a different path. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, nominees have been first-time candidates who embody novelty and youth – average age: 51.
But 2016 may flip that dynamic upside-down.
Hillary Clinton is a repeat candidate and potentially her party’s oldest nominee; she turns 69 in October. On the Republican side, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is a first-time candidate who will celebrate his 45th birthday in May. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a favorite among grass-roots conservatives, is five months older than Rubio. The opposite age gap occurred in 2008 and 1992, with 25-year and 22-year age differences between the younger Democrat and the older Republican.
There is a parallel to a potential Clinton-Rubio matchup – the presidential election of 1856 – and that should displease both parties. The choices 160 years ago: Republican John C. Fremont, a 43-year-old Californian with a little time in the U.S. Senate, and 65-year-old James Buchanan – like Clinton, a former U.S. senator and secretary of state.
Why neither side cares for this reference: Republicans lost that battle; Fremont carried only 11 of 31 states. Democrats lost the war; after Buchanan’s one ineffective term, Republicans won the next six presidential elections.
Time will tell if this scenario plays out. Meanwhile, here are five factors that make 2016 a handstand and a head-scratcher:
1. The blue map
Obama twice won big in the Electoral College. However, he’s also the first incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 to see a drop-off in his electoral take – 33 fewer in 2012 than in 2008. That makes the Democratic lock impressive, but not necessarily impervious.
Working off the 332-206 count from 2012, Republicans have to flip Florida and Ohio to make it a more manageable 285-253. Even if Clinton dropped Iowa and Colorado and their 15 electoral votes, she’d still have the magical 270. The pivotal state: Virginia and its 13 electoral votes.
Bottom line: Like running the table in a game of eight-ball, Republicans have no room for error, while Democrats have multiple states to forfeit. Decided advantage: Clinton.
2. More congressional volatility?
Here’s another oddity: consistency at the presidential level, upheaval in Congress.
The end of the Obama presidency will come with a historic footnote: For the first time since 1801-25 and the administrations of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, we’ve had three consecutive two-term presidents.
Consider what happened to Congress over this past quarter-century. It went from Democratic to Republican control following 1994’s midterm election. Democrats retook both chambers after 2006’s midterm vote. Republicans returned the favor after the midterm referenda of 2010 and 2014.
2016 could offer more tumult. Senate Republicans must defend 24 seats – many in blue states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Senate Democrats have but 10 seats to protect, including one here in perma-blue California. Only two of those races – Colorado and Nevada – are seen as difficult to defend.
If the Senate goes Democratic while presumably the House remains in Republican hands, its ends the recent pattern of a new president entering office with a like-minded Congress.
3. Republican identity crisis
The Democrats’ second advantage: They’re pretty sure of their nominee, while as many as half a dozen Republicans could be slugging it out beyond February’s early primary states.
What the GOP is experiencing is an identity crisis. The party lacks a living avatar – the heir to Reagan and his conservative blend of economic, government and worldviews. Democrats, on the other hand, can worship at the shrines of Obama and the two Clintons.
In an interview with an Israeli newspaper this summer, George W. Bush warned of a witch’s brew of isolationism, protectionism and nativism affecting America. He may as well have been talking about a Republican primary field featuring the likes of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump clashing over immigration and free trade, while GOP hawks bicker with Rand Paul over America’s role on the world stage.
How one nominee pulls together these loose ends and convinces America of a happy, united party requires a politician of ... well, Reaganesque skills.
4. Clinton enthusiasm – or lack thereof
Not that Democrats are in a position to gloat. The Hillary-Bernie Sanders undercard likely will be swifter and less bloody. On the other hand, there’s the open question of whether Clinton can reassemble the same coalition that twice delivered handsomely for Obama.
The historic “her-story” aspect to a Clinton candidacy may protect, if not enhance, turnout among women. Just as GOP infighting over immigration could secure the Latino vote.
But what about another cornerstone of the Obama monument – America’s youths?
In 2016, there will be approximately 13 million first-time voters who fell into the 15-to-17-year-old range in 2012. In the last election, this demographic broke 2-1 in favor of Obama. Will they be as passionate about a nominee who’s a well-worn politician and a late convert to progressive causes?
A piece of advice to Clinton: don’t ever repeat that line in the last Democratic debate about being “from the ’60s.”
5. POTUS on the trail
Which leads us to one final wild card: Obama, the man these candidates aim to replace.
Historically, termed-out presidents tend to be left out of so-called “change” elections. In 2008, George W. Bush was too politically toxic to be of help to John McCain. In 2000, Al Gore’s brain trust couldn’t decide if Bill Clinton was an asset or liability. They went with the latter, when the smarter choice was deploying Clinton in southern border states.
2016 could break the pattern of a lame duck presidency. The Obama White House is hinting at an active final year: shuttering Guantánamo, finding political agreement in Syria, winning a Supreme Court victory of the 26-state challenge to his immigration executive order. Add the possibilities of military action abroad and maybe a Supreme Court nomination or two at home and it means Obama will be in the news – his words and actions impacting the campaign’s discourse.
And look for Obama to be a far more active campaigner than his two predecessors. Hillary Clinton may have no other choice if by next fall she’s underperforming with the Obama progressive base. The guess here: Obama showing up in places that were key to his own success: Northern Virginia, metropolitan Denver and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County.
There’s one person we’ve left out of the conversation – Bill Clinton, the Democrats’ “big dog.”
Does the big dog get off the porch and campaign for his wife, and be an effective communicator? He’s already doing it.
Will Bill say or do something that lands Hillary in hot water for a day or two? That too would seem a safe bet as it happened more than once back in 2008.
It’s what passes for continuity in what otherwise shapes up as a pattern-changing national election.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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