Many pundits heralded the Republican Party’s collapse in 2012 as President Obama celebrated his reelection. Although these claims are probably overstated, the primary process and electoral results exposed significant problems within the party that must be addressed before ballots are cast in 2016. During the campaign, the GOP was unable to connect with many young voters and minority populations because of its anti-immigration policies and its socially conservative platform. This did not bode well for election day: only 37% of young voters and 17% of minority voters cast ballots for Governor Romney. These low percentages reflect wider policy and imaging problems within the Republican Party, and the problems didn’t end in 2012.
About eighteen months have passed since President Obama was sworn in for a second time and the Republicans haven’t addressed many core problems. Congress, led by House Republicans, has an approval rating of just 13%. The Republican House leadership is not close to passing comprehensive immigration reform despite the fact that the Senate passed a bipartisan agreement. Young voters also strongly disagree with the GOP position on gay marriage. The party refuses to compromise with the Obama Administration on nearly all mainstream policy issues such as economic stimulus, immigration reform, common core implementation, marriage rights, healthcare, and drug legalization. The GOP’s most ominous problem, however, is its internal divisions. Moderate Republicans incessantly clash with more conservative Tea Party politicians and activists.
This problem plagued the GOP during the 2012 election. According to Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse, the party’s disunity during the primary season and beyond was the most significant reason for Romney’s loss. It was difficult to organize a unified party strategy when a bitter primary contest contrasted with three years of preparation by the Obama campaign. More conservative contenders Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Governor Rick Perry battled against moderate Governor Mitt Romney and libertarian candidate Ron Paul. Republican candidates labeled one another with terms like “conservative out of convenience,” “hypocrite,” and “flip-flopper”. Although primary candidates always attack each other, these attacks were especially poignant given already sharp divisions within the party. All this only served to further sever ties among candidates and more dangerously, within the party. The Republican Party has not resolved its internal differences since the last election and the list of potential candidates in 2016 suggests that unless there is a drastic change, the GOP will be just as fragmented.
The list of possible nominees is longer than ever yet no candidate garners more than 10% of Republican support. Division will be sharp again: every niche in the party is represented among potential candidates and given party history, the chances for unity don’t look very good. It is important to understand how each potential candidate contributes to these divisions.
Senator Ted Cruz is one of the polarizing Republicans instigating the party’s downfall. Cruz, a rising star in the Tea Party, was the driving force behind the government shutdown in 2013. This debacle further damaged the party’s image among potential voters. Cruz’s efforts to stymie a budget compromise in 2013 helped lead to the government shutdown and this will hurt his campaign if he runs. His focus on decreasing the debt, holding the federal government accountable, and blocking Obamacare motivated the Senator to help shut down the government. These intentions, while noble, were not well-regarded by the media. According to Gallup, the Republican approval rate plummeted 10% between September 2013 and October 2013. If the election were held today, Cruz would win 10% of Republican support for the nomination. While this is similar to other approval rates among the potential Republican candidates, Cruz’s partisan stance in the Tea Party, prevalent during the government shutdown, will keep him from being a viable candidate in a time when citizens want Washington to compromise.
There is also growing speculation that a third Bush may vie for the Oval Office. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of George W. Bush, may run for office. If the election were held today, Bush would receive 10% of the vote. However, the odds are slim the United States will elect a candidate related to George W. Bush; the second Bush holds a record for 26 consecutive months with a sub-40% approval rate since polling began in the 1930s. President Bush has a 60 point approval rating gap between Republicans and Democrats, which suggests that Americans remain polarized about the former President. Jeb Bush’s own actions don’t help. His stance on the Common Core and immigration has upset the Republican Party, further polarizing partisan conservatives whose support would be necessary to secure the nomination. Bush will merely be a distraction from candidates who may have a chance of winning.
Congressman Paul Ryan’s expertise in economics help qualify him as a candidate for President in 2016. Paul Ryan’s yearly budgets remind Americans of his leadership in Congress. In a country with a debt upwards of $17 trillion and the citizen agreement that the economy is the most important obstacle facing the United States, Ryan’s background lends itself perfectly to the country’s needs. But his ties to the Romney campaign may hurt a potential candidacy. This hindrance may be enough to prevent him from winning the nomination. Although Ryan is among the most qualified potential candidates, he will draw a portion of support from the pool of other Republicans.
Senator Rand Paul is also considering jumping into the race. Senator Paul represents shift towards the youth demographic. If the Republican Party intends to survive past the 2016 election, Rand Paul is the best choice because he can unify the party. Many youth voters are enthusiastic about the Senator and contrary to popular belief, youth voters are very important. They voted more than seniors in the 2012 election. As a libertarian identifying as a Republican candidate, Paul may have the ability to consolidate the young and old Republicans. His focus in the election would be on gaining new voters among minorities and youth and proposing ideas to fix the economy and unemployment. If the vote were cast today, Paul would win about 10% of the vote.
A few other candidates, including Governor Rick Perry, Governor Mike Huckabee, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Chris Christie and Dr. Ben Carson add to a collective Republican base that is unable to make up its mind. The wide pool of possible candidates is appealing in the moment, but when it leaves the Republicans with another nasty primary race for the nomination, it harms the eventual nominee. The other side of the aisle looks different.
While many Democrats are considering jumping into the race, there are only four feasible candidates: Senator Elizabeth Warren, Governor O’Malley, Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State, First Lady and Senator Hillary Clinton. Secretary Clinton is the clear favorite to win the nomination out of these four potential contenders.
Senator Warren, who would win 28% of the vote if it were cast today, is Clinton’s only potential serious competition. Warren will appeal to the general public because of her battles against massive student loan debt and seemingly insidious banking practices. Both stances generate widespread support, especially as they champion the “99%” instead of the “1%” on Wall Street. Her level of support among Democrats—28%— is nearly triple the amount of support any Republican has achieved. While many are uncertain if she will run, she enjoys more consolidated support among Democrats than any Republican has among Republicans. No other candidate within the Democratic Party will be able to challenge Secretary Clinton. Warren is the bastion of the party’s liberal wing; Clinton represents the Democrats’ Washington establishment.
Although Senator Warren would be able to mount a significant challenge, Secretary Clinton will probably win the nomination. If the vote were held today, Clinton would win 68% of Democratic support. This amount is nearly twice as much as the final 37% of the Republican vote Romney received during the 2012 primary. As the election approaches, Clinton’s margin will likely increase. This will illustrate how strong and unified the Democratic Party has become. Clinton’s path parallels that of President Obama’s in the years preceding both his 2008 and 2012 elections. After a fifty-fifty split of supporters between Obama and Clinton, President Obama easily won his 2008 primary and Clinton’s supporters merged in support for the well-organized Democrat Party.
The Democrats’ prospects are far brighter than the Republicans’ as 2016 quickly approaches. Hillary Clinton has powerful donors, women activists and a Democratic Party organized to win. Already, Hillary Clinton is predicted to win by a sweeping margin in 2016. Since the Republicans are poorly organized and continue to antagonize the public, there is little chance that the party can overcome what is certain to be a divisive primary.
Although Republicans will face big problems, there are some positive signs. A shorter Republican primary process will “better position their 2016 nominee to compete.” The RNC has already implemented adjustments to allow its nominee to access campaign funds earlier. Steps like these, in combination with a unification of Republicans under one candidate and an improved campaign strategy would be the RNC’s only hope at survival. 2012 may not have been the end of the GOP but if the Republicans can’t get their act together before 2016, then the pundits announcing the end of the GOP may have been right after all.