The GOP’s Uphill Fight for the White House
Bitter primary battles ahead plus tough Electoral College math pose big challenges.
Though Republicans are well positioned ahead of this fall’s congressional races, two key factors may make the 2016 presidential election a different story, as they try to keep Democrats from extending their two-term hold on the White House for the first time since 1930.
First, the primary election schedule means it’s unlikely GOP voters will come to an early consensus. Republicans in four states that vote early in the process have large blocs of motivated conservatives. These voters are inclined to support candidates who lean to the right rather than more mainstream candidates, who tend to win the nomination.
So moderate or less conservative Republicans are forced to run to the right during the primaries, spending money and enduring attacks that leave them in a weaker position than they would be otherwise after winning the nomination and heading into November’s general election. This happened to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2012 and to Senator John McCain of Arizona in 2008.
This time around, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is the poster child for the GOP’s battle between principles and political expediency, where the central question is whether the party should nominate someone whose positions on every issue appease conservatives or a person who has a better chance of beating a Democrat in November.
Bush’s view on immigration is softer than some conservatives want, and it may complicate his path to the nomination if he chooses to run. The irony: Those same views would help the GOP attract independents and Hispanics in the fall of 2016 — if Bush can get that far.
While Republicans fight over the nomination, Democrats will be able to conserve money and hone a united message for the general election. The party has essentially cleared a path for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to breeze to the Democratic nomination if, as expected, she joins the race.
Vice President Joe Biden badly wants to move up to the top job, but he knows he can’t beat Clinton in the primaries and won’t run unless she opts out. The same goes for most other would-be candidates. Someone will challenge Clinton, but it won’t be a top challenger with a boatload of money, and the race to the nomination will be over quickly.
The other hurdle for Republicans in 2016: the Electoral College map. Democrats hold an edge in voter registration nationally and, more importantly for the presidential race, in most states with large populations. These include California (55 electoral votes), New York (29), Illinois and Pennsylvania (20 each) — states that Democrats usually carry.
The votes from those states, plus the District of Columbia and a dozen other states that tend to back the Democratic candidate, give a Democrat some 200 electoral votes, well on the way to the 270 needed to win.
Among populous states, Republicans can count on only the 38 electoral votes of Texas. Their candidate must carry all of the GOP’s strongholds — mostly smaller states in the South and Midwest with fewer electoral votes — and most of the toss-up states to overcome the Democrats’ Electoral College advantage. They can do that, for sure, but it’s a tall order.
Republicans have to hope that President Obama’s approval ratings stay low and that pointed oversight questions from House Republican committee chairmen on Obamacare, Benghazi and Russia, for example, put Clinton on the defensive.
For now, Clinton starts as a narrow favorite. If the Republicans can avoid a heated ideological battle over the next 24 months and can rally quickly behind a strong candidate, they may be able to win a couple of toss-up states and turn the Electoral College tide.
But based on the behavior of GOP voters in recent electoral cycles and the internal criticisms of Jeb Bush this month, there’s little reason to expect Republicans to have a drama-free, fight-free primary season.