No Sure Formula For Winning Elections

Yesterday RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende sought to administer a comprehensive smackdown to the “demographic/geographic destiny” scenario of worried Republicans and optimistic Democrats (he was specifically addressing one of the former, Commentary‘s Peter Wehner), whereby GOP electoral prospects are being decisively eroded by a party base that’s too old and white and too confined to the South and interior West.

Trende has come at this hypothesis before, but via the narrower question of whether the GOP has actually “maxed out” on its white voting base. His argument last summer that a white voter “falloff” between 2008 and 2012 had as much to do with Mitt Romney’s defeat as the failure to attract minority voters drew a lot of positive attention from conservative opponents of immigration reform (many of whom did not pay attention to Trende’s warning that the “missing white voters” weren’t necessarily all that conservative). In the latest piece, Trende simplifies his analysis of demographic trends by suggesting that Democratic gains among minority voters and Republican gains among white voters are largely canceling each other out. But his main emphasis is on the idea that “fundamentals” like incumbency and economic growth can change the boundaries of what we can expect in party performance among various demographic categories.

In 1984, Reagan [who won 64% of the white vote] was running with 7 percent growth at his back. In 1988, George H.W. Bush, running in a good environment with solid growth, won 59 percent of the white vote. In 2012, running in a mediocre-to-unfavorable environment, Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the white vote. In other words, a Republican running in a mediocre year performs about as well with whites as a Republican used to perform running in a great Republican year. If a Republican president were running with 7 percent growth at his or her back, I’m fairly certain he or she would eclipse Reagan’s 1984 mark.

We cannot, of course, test that hypothesis until 2020 at the earliest. So Trende concludes with a more general dismissal of the idea that Republicans are doomed unless they change their game to broaden their demographic and geographic appeal:

The GOP currently has some of the largest shares of Congress, governorships, and state legislatures that it has had in recent history. Demographic changes did not prevent Democrats from suffering the worst midterm election in 80 years in 2010, and most signs suggest another bad year is in the offing. This simply isn’t consistent with the “demographic doom” storyline. As John Sides wryly noted, realignments don’t take midterm elections off.

Ultimately, our elections still follow the same fundamentals that they have always followed. Parties that produce peace and prosperity win elections. Those that do not lose elections. If Democrats produce growth and keep us out of wars before 2016, they will more likely than not win another term. If they do not, they will lose, demographics aside.

Now this rather pat conclusion does not deal with the possibility that disparate turnout patterns in presidential and midterm years means any generalizations about “the electorate” are misleading (or to answer Sides, maybe “realignments” don’t take midterm elections off, but strong trends short of a realignment most definitely can and have). And as always, the limited data set of recent elections makes it possible for multiple theories about the difference between victory and defeat to be valid–or at least arguable–simultaneously.

But what I took away from Trende’s critique of Wehner’s analysis is that we should be suspicious of any single-bullet theory of elections. Yes, demographic trends matter a lot, but in the end a vote’s a vote and parties can make up losses in one sector with gains in another. The same is true of geography: yes, the winning presidential party tends to win most of the “battleground states,” but that’s mainly because close states tend to reflect the national popular vote. Yes, we sometimes over-emphasize the impact of ideology, “issues” and candidate quality on actual voters, but on the other hand, no one really believes the Goldwater, McGovern and Mondale fiascos were purely the product of good economic conditions, or that Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich would have done as well as Mitt Romney in 2012.

Sometimes you have to look at the influences that affect elections in combination: right now, Democrats face the obvious challenge of limiting their losses among white voters and maximizing their gains among minority voters while investing heavily in changing midterm turnout patterns that are actually as big a problem as the mediocre condition of the economy. That can be done mechanically via superior, data-driven GOTV efforts, or more indirectly by issue appeals, candidate selection, and yes, negative campaigning–or all of the above. And while “swing voters” who actually pay attention to campaign ads are a vastly less important share of the electorate than many pundits imagine, they still exist, and cannot be discounted.

So while I strongly sympathize with Trende (and with the entire tribe of “fundamentalists”) in criticizing some single-bullet theories of elections as ignoring data and disguising hidden agendas, they sometimes tend to substitute their own. Politics remains a complicated business. And we need to examine the wildly disparate factors that influence it more, not less.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.