EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is adapted from one that ran in the November 2, 2015, issue of National Review.
Hillary Clinton has glaring weaknesses as a candidate. The historical odds are against her goal: getting a third term in the White House for one party. The Democrats should nonetheless be considered the likely winners if they nominate her.
Clinton has had months of bad news. Her mishandling of official e-mails as secretary of state, along with her clumsy lies about it, have kept generating unflattering coverage. Her favorability ratings have been falling for four years straight. A small majority of Americans have an unfavorable impression of her in the latest poll average at RealClearPolitics. In August, a Quinnipiac poll found that 61 percent of voters say she’s not honest or trustworthy. Starting that month, nine polls in a row had her behind Bernie Sanders among New Hampshire Democrats.
While she has recovered the lead there in some polls and enjoyed better press since the first Democratic debate, Republicans can point to other reasons for optimism. They have control of Congress, most governorships, and most state legislative chambers: Perhaps that means that the country now has a natural Republican majority? They will also benefit from time-for-a-change sentiment. Only once since 1952 has a party won the Electoral College three times in a row. The exception came in 1988, when George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan. But voters then were much happier about the state of the country than they are now. In the fall of 1988, most polls found that Americans were slightly more likely to say that the country was “headed in the right direction” than that it was “on the wrong track.” Now, more than twice as many people give the negative answer as give the positive one.
Clinton also lacks an advantage that Barack Obama had in 2008 and 2012: being the first black nominee and then the first black president. Black turnout was higher than usual in both years, and the Democratic share of the black vote was even higher than usual too. If black voters in 2016 act as they did in 2004, during the last pre-Obama election, that change by itself will erase roughly half the Democratic margin in the popular vote from last time.
Against all these reasons for optimism must be set the fact that Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the six most recent presidential elections. It may be that Republican victories in legislative and gubernatorial elections don’t carry over to presidential elections for structural reasons. For example, the geographic diffusion of Republican voters helps their party win legislative seats but doesn’t help them win the White House.
One common explanation for the Democrats’ White House winning streak is that demographic trends favor them: Asians and Hispanics, two rapidly growing groups, have leaned increasingly left; young white voters are moving left, too, as Christianity weakens among them. Another explanation is that voters, even ones who are middle-of-the-road ideologically, think Republicans’ priorities are too skewed toward rich people and big business. These are intertwined theories, since the party’s plutocratic image is partly responsible for its weakness among blacks, Hispanics, and young people, all groups that tend to be less prosperous than the national average.
Clinton’s program includes an increase in the minimum wage, expanded child-care subsidies, universal preschool, mandatory paid leave, and legislation to make it easier to sue employers for sex discrimination. These are policies that deliver concrete benefits to large groups of voters and signal that she is on the side of women, families, poor people, and employees.
As a nominee, she would spend some time making the case for these policies. It seems likely, though, that she will spend at least as much time using them to wage a negative campaign against the Republicans as the enemies of those policies and, by extension, of their beneficiaries. She will also use Republican opposition to Obamacare, including the contraceptive mandate it enabled, for this purpose. If she is running next fall, she will bank on the appeal of these policies and fear of the Republicans to keep black turnout high and increase turnout among single women, who also vote heavily Democratic.
Republicans have very little in the way of popular policy proposals to counter the appeal of liberalism.
Republicans have very little in the way of popular policy proposals to counter the appeal of liberalism. The Republican presidential candidates have not built their campaigns on offering conservative ideas that would give any direct help to families trying to make ends meet. Their tax-cut proposals are almost all focused on people who make much more than the average voter. So far, Republicans do not seem to be even trying to erode the Democratic advantage on middle-class economics.The Democratic nominee will also probably benefit from a slight edge in the Electoral College. Eighteen states, with 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, have voted Democratic in each of the last six elections. Some analysts call these states a “blue wall” that Republicans will not easily break through. That’s overstated — Pennsylvania, which is part of that wall, has been getting less Democratic — but a popular-vote tie would probably mean a Clinton victory.
Finally, Clinton will need some luck to win, as any candidate does. It may materialize. The economy is, if not roaring, as good as it has been since the crisis hit in 2008.
Clinton could, of course, be nominated and then lose. But her bet is that the liberal coalition will show up and that swing voters who do not love her will nonetheless decide that they prefer her to a Republican party out of touch with most people’s concerns. It’s not a bad bet.
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