If (or when) Hillary Clinton makes it to the general election, how likely will she be to defeat her Republican opponent? In a pair of posts this week, Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine and Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight lay out dueling views on the subject — with Chait arguing Clinton would be the clear favorite, and Silver saying we should think of the race as a "toss-up."
Their differing views, though, aren't fundamentally about Hillary Clinton at all. Rather, they're about whether the demographic polarization of our politics now gives Democrats a built-in advantage in presidential contests. Chait argues that it does — but Silver is much more skeptical, arguing that a reversion to a GOP victory is just as likely as a third Democratic term.
Has Obama built a durable coalition that will be ascendant in presidential years? The answer to this will have infinitely more bearing on the 2016 outcome than Hillary Clinton's Chipotle visit. But though some demographic trends may be in Democrats' favor, other analysts argue that it's still working- and middle-class whites whose votes are the key to victory. And we don't yet know how many of them will sign on to four more years of Democratic rule.
Chait's case for Democratic dominance
"The United States has polarized into stable voting blocs, and the Democratic bloc is a bit larger and growing at a faster rate," Chait writes. So, he writes, unless the economy goes into recession, we should naturally expect a Democratic presidential candidate to beat her Republican opponent. It's simple math.
His main evidence for this is Pew survey data showing that consistently over the past 10 years, surveys have found there are more Democratic and Democratic-leaning Americans than there are Republican counterparts. And that hasn't changed lately — even in years when the GOP dominated the midterms.
But if the Democratic coalition is bigger, what explains those Republican waves in 2010 and 2014? In Chait's telling, this is a feature of the Democratic coalition's demographic makeup. Democrats are disproportionately strong among young and nonwhite voters, and they're disproportionately less likely to vote in midterm years — but they'll show up just fine in presidential ones, Chait argues. Matt Yglesias made a similar argument after last year's midterms, writing, "American politics is descending into a meaningless, demographically driven seesaw."
Chait obviously doesn't argue that it's impossible for a Republican to win the presidency. But he's saying that the Democrats' bigger coalition gives them a built-in edge — and that given what we know now about the state of the economy (pretty okay) and Obama's approval rating (okay and recently rising), it doesn't look like independents or swing voters will opt for the GOP.
Nate Silver's case for ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Not so fast, Silver says — he's instinctively skeptical of claims that our politics has fundamentally changed in a way that will consistently advantage one party or the other. "Predictions made on the premise of 'emerging' majorities have a miserable track record," he writes, and calls the argument that recent demographic trends favor the Democratic Party "dubious."
Instead, Silver focuses on the big-picture numbers he believes to be truly important. "The truth," he writes, is that a Clinton win "is roughly a 50/50 proposition."
Why? Well, when Silver looks at economic performance (2.4 percent GDP growth in 2014) and Obama's approval (about 45 percent), he concludes that they're "about average." Additionally, he says that elections in which the incumbent is term-limited, like this one, historically tend to "default to being toss-ups."
Silver thinks Obama's approval will matter for Clinton's chances, but expects it to stay close to where it is, since it's hovered around there for most of his presidency. He also, correctly, says we can't know what the economy will look like next year, since economists have historically "shown almost no ability to predict the rate of economic growth more than six months in advance." So his conclusion is that it could go either way — and that we probably won't learn anything for the rest of the year to change that assessment.
We've gotten more polarized — but has it helped Democrats?
As both Silver and Chait write, looking at presidential approval and the economy doesn't tell us too much right now. For instance, at this point in 1991, it sure looked like Republicans were headed for their sixth victory out of the past seven presidential contests, with President George H. W. Bush's approval rating at a sky-high 83 percent. But the economy took a turn for the worse, Bush's popularity sank accordingly, and the Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton, cast himself as a new face for his party. A lot can happen in 19 months.
But when it comes to the underlying strength of the Democratic coalition, overall I'm closer to Silver's uncertainty.
Chait's argument is strongest when he makes the case that polarization matters quite a bit. A hardening of political allegiances on both sides of the aisle does seem to have resulted in closer presidential contests in recent years, as you can see in this chart:
Through most of the 20th century, it was actually quite common for presidential candidates to win the popular vote by double-digit landslide margins — indeed, until the 1990s, lopsided wins were more common than closer elections.
Nowadays, such a prospect seems absurd — which indicates that something significant has changed in our politics. Indeed, in the seven presidential contests since Reagan's landslide 1984 reelection, no candidate has managed to win by even 10 points. The apparent reason? The parties have entrenched themselves, with each one winning the consistent loyalty of a large group of voters.
Chait's argument that polarization has led to an entrenched Democratic advantage, though, is a tougher sell. Indeed, John Judis — a former proponent of the theory that Democrats had an emerging demographic edge — wrote in National Journal that it's "clear" that "the Democratic advantage of several years ago is gone."
The problem, Judis says, is white voters. Specifically, Judis argues that the party's support among working- and middle-class white voters may be declining more quickly than its support among racial minorities is growing — and these voters can still decide the outcome. "To win [presidential] elections, Democrats have still needed between 36 and 40 percent nationally of the white working-class vote," Judis writes.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, made a similar argument in the National Review. "Every election since 2008 can be explained with reference to how white working-class and middle-income white college grads have swung," Olsen wrote. In key swing states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, "these voters' unwillingness to back Romney, not the Rising American Electorate [of young and nonwhite voters]," let Obama win in 2012, Olsen writes.
So though the Democrats' base may indeed be strong, it's these voters who I'm most curious about in assessing 2016. Will enough of them feel okay extending the eight years of Democratic rule to 12? If not, the Democrats' "blue wall" in the electoral college will crumble.