Elections often come to be dominated by a central theme. In 2008 it was the “hope and change” offered by a fresh-faced candidate, in 2010 it was a repudiation of government overreach as defined by the stimulus and Obamacare, 2012 was the year of identity politics, and 2014 was a vote against Sen. Harry Reid’s particularly strident brand of do-nothingism. But, at least as of now, 2016 seems to lack a unifying storyline.
That’s not to say that the media hasn’t road-tested a few. The most likely to stick—depending on who the Republicans nominate for president—could be the old guard Democrats versus the young, upstart Republicans. It would be a theme that not only works against Hillary Clinton, whose last name is a blessing or a curse depending on who you ask, but also for the Senate, where Democrats are oddly opting to line up behind candidates that have already tried and failed to win statewide office.
The media’s recent attempt to identify a resonant unifying thread has led them to Democrat’s seeming inevitability. They argue that the presidential campaign and Senate races are little more than longwinded coronations for Clinton and a Democratic Senate majority (everyone knows they still have no chance of winning the House).
Take, for instance, a recent column by Dylan Byers inPOLITICO Magazine:
Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second: This is Hillary Clinton’s election to lose.
On Nov. 8, 2016, Clinton will start — start — with a minimum 247 of the 270 electoral votes she needs to win. If you give her Colorado and Virginia — which many political strategists would, given the Hispanic population in one and the rising influence of the northern-centered population in the other — she’ll start with 269. That means Clinton doesn’t need Ohio or Florida. She just needs one small state like Iowa, Nevada or New Hampshire to put her over the edge. And because she’s got a boatload of money and no viable primary challenger, she’ll have plenty of time and resources to lock up at least one of those states.
There are similar arguments to be made about Democrats’ attempt to take the Senate. As Charlie Cook writes for National Journal:
The battle for control of the Senate is finally underway and if early indications are correct, Republicans can be no more confident that they will keep the majority in the next Congress than Democrats could have been at this point in 2013.
In many ways Cook is right, on paper Democrats appear to have every advantage: Obama’s approval numbers are up, only a few Democrat seats are in play, Republicans are stuck defending 24 seats, including seven that went for Obama in 2012, and it’s a presidential election, which means Democrat voters may actually turn out. As Doug Sosnick recently wrote for POLITICO, “Mitch McConnell shouldn’t get comfortable.”
But there are flaws in both of these narratives. On the presidential side, the theory that there is a set of states that will inevitably vote a certain way is disproven by history. As statistician Nate Silver points out in a recent column, it wasn’t too long ago that the GOP was touting their “lock” on the Electoral College because they wrongly believed that their historic success in several states would continue into the future. Those state included Illinois, New Jersey and California – all states that voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election from 1968 to 1998 and all states that are now known now for being deep blue.
The president to break through the false wall was Bill Clinton, who ended up winning nine of the 21 states that Republicans considered “locks,” several of which haven’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since. Silver writes:
So when commentators talk about the Democrats’ “blue wall,” all they’re really pointing out is that Democrats have had a pretty good run in presidential elections lately. And they have, if you conveniently draw the line at 1992 (it doesn’t sound so impressive to instead say Democrats have won five of the 12 elections since 1968). During that time, Democrats have won four elections pretty clearly, lost one narrowly and essentially tied the sixth. This has been evident from the popular vote, however. The one time the Electoral College really mattered — that was 2000, of course — it hurt the Democrats.
As far as the Senate goes, Republicans definitely face challenges, but the playing field is not at all comparable to what Democrats dealt with in 2014. First, Obama didn’t win the up-for-grab states in 2016 by nearly the same margins that Romney won the contested seats in 2014. Second, even in the states Obama did win, there are several that Democrats have no real chance of picking up like Sen. Chuck Grassley’s reelection in Iowa. And third, Democrats in 2014 were dealing with a slew of retirements in challenging states and, as of now, Republicans have two open seats, only one of which is expected to be competitive.
At their core both the presidential and Senate races will come down to who the Republican Party nominates for president. Party polarization has increased the correlation between Senate and presidential results so Republicans must pick their person carefully. But if they do, there is nothing in history to suggest that the purported “blue wall” won’t come crumbling down.