Election season is like the Christmas season – it just keeps getting longer and longer. Now, before kids even have a chance to polish off their pile of Halloween candy, stores are whipping out the Christmas decorations and stocking their shelves with holiday must-haves. The same is true of elections; before the midterm winners even take office pundits are already looking two years ahead, guessing at frontrunners and assessing candidates’ chances.
We look closely to see who is spending time in Iowa, the site of the first caucuses, we anxiously scan the shelves at Barnes and Noble for the newest memoires—a sure hint of candidacy, and we look at innumerable (and pointless) polls to see who could be a viable contender. It’s a tradition borne out of the twenty-four hour news cycle, where a candidate’s flight records, speech transcripts and event schedules are picked through with a fine tooth comb.
At this point we’ve almost become inured to the excesses and extravagancies of a years-long campaign season, but it almost wasn’t so. Ten years ago there was an honest debate about whether the “emerging Democratic majority” would make the outcome of many elections a foregone conclusion. As John Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote in their book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, America’s changing demography seemed to signal a destiny of success for Democrats. Women were increasingly voting for Democrats, minorities were a growing portion of the electorate, college towns were becoming reliable liberal corridors, and skilled professionals were becoming a reliably Democratic voting bloc.
Three years ago Judis and Teixeira looked like fortune tellers. The minority vote was growing and becoming more reliably Democratic, the gender gap got even bigger, those with post-graduate education continued to support Democrats, and young voters were not only becoming consistent voters, but hard-working grassroots activists as well.
But nothing is permanent in politics. Now Judis is back explaining exactly what went wrong with his once-lauded thesis:
These advantages remain partially in place for Democrats today, but they are being severely undermined by two trends that have emerged in the past few elections—one surprising, the other less so. The less surprising trend is that Democrats have continued to hemorrhage support among white working-class voters—a group that generally works in blue-collar and lower-income service jobs and that is roughly identifiable in exit polls as those whites who have not graduated from a four-year college. These voters, and particularly those well above the poverty line, began to shift toward the GOP decades ago, but in recent years that shift has become progressively more pronounced.
The more surprising trend is that Republicans are gaining dramatically among a group that had tilted toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008: Call them middle-class Americans. These are voters who generally work in what economist Stephen Rose has called “the office economy.” In exit polling, they can roughly be identified as those who have college—but not postgraduate—degrees and those whose household incomes are between $50,000 and $100,000. (Obviously, the overlap here is imperfect, but there is a broad congruence between these polling categories.)
The issue, Judis writes, is that elections have “hinged on taxes and the size of government” – two issues to which “middle-class voters so often seem to return.” And that’s the problem with any political theory that predicts a permanent majority – large coalitions built on different foundations inevitably falter; issues that were once the be-all-end-all fade into the background with others rising to take their place; and political parties aren’t unchanging entities, they grow and adapt. As Sean Trende explains in RealClearPolitics: “Coalitions are ultimately like water balloons: When you press down on one side, another side pops up. The Democratic coalition of the late aughts proves to be no exception.”
None of this is to say that Republicans are sure-fire winners in 2016 and beyond, it’s only to point out that the upcoming presidential election is anything but decided. In some ways, Republicans may still carry an edge. A recent analysis by revered political scientists Larry Sabato points out that over the last 11 elections when there was no incumbent on the ballot and the incumbent had been reelected in the previous election the incumbent’s party lost an average of 6.9 percent. But even a shift of 3 points could make for an electoral map that tilts in favor of Republicans.
Even if that proves true it doesn’t absolve our party of the hard work that will be needed over the next two years to assure victory. We need to continue being innovative and creative in our policy ideas. We need to continue working, often across the aisle, to get things passed in Congress. We need to continue making the hard choices necessary to keep the economy on track and the federal budget stable. We need to recruit top notch candidates who can sell the conservative message. And we need to continue putting boots on the ground and ads on the air to make sure that our message gets out and is understood.
The 2016 presidential elections are still a long ways away, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t start soon. Republicans are in the drivers’ seat. Let’s make sure we take the wheel.