During her ruminations on the launch of Jeb!’s campaign, Marquette University political scientist, Julia Azari says, in passing, that “it’s not really clear that campaigns or campaign rhetoric matter much beyond the margins.” This is an important insight that political scientists keep trying to hammer into the national political dialogue about elections. A variant of this wisdom is the “demography is destiny” apothegm.
Way to take the blood and the fun out of politics, right?
We need to keep making this point because most political analysis that you’ll see, particularly in the syndicated column format, completely ignores the fact that it hardly matters what the candidates say or where they campaign or what messages they choose for their ad campaigns. Far more important than these tactical decisions, and even outweighing most strategic decisions, is simply which party has a bigger base of supporters.
But, yeah, where’s the fun in that?
The thing is, even though political scientists are justified in repeatedly making this point, it’s not really true. A better way to understand our present political situation is that if everything remains equal then nothing will change. Translated into practical analysis, so long as Democrats and Republicans continue to behave like Democrats and Republicans, the Democrats will win presidential elections and lose midterms, the Republicans will retain control of the House of Representatives, and control of the Senate will continue to flip back and forth. The only exceptions to this will be when the party in the White House really screws up or is victimized by bad timing, say a military setback or a downturn in the economy. But, again, if everything remains equal, nothing will change.
For Jeb! and the rest of the Republican field, what this means is that if they run conventionally conservative campaigns in the rough mold of the campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney, they will be overwhelmed at the polls for the simple reason that there are more Democrats than Republicans, and presidential elections have high enough turnout to assure that the Democrat won’t lose through lack of voter mobilization. For Hillary, it means that she doesn’t really need to do anything but show up and she’ll be the next president, but she won’t have a friendly Congress unless she somehow defies people’s expectations.
Recently, we’ve seen criticism of Hillary for acting like a typical liberal Democrat. If she goes that route, we’re told, nothing will change. Yes, she will probably win, but she’ll have no more ability to influence Congress than the present occupant of the Oval Office.
I have disputed this. But my argument, which has two parts, is not that she’s making a mistake by pursuing a classic liberal stance. My argument is that Hillary, specifically, and House Clinton, more generally, have a broader potential base of support than your classic liberal candidate for office. For this reason, she begins the race ahead of where Barack Obama ended his, and this gives her the ability to test the political scientists’ theory that campaigns and campaign rhetoric don’t matter much. My advice is that she should campaign for counties and districts that she doesn’t need in an Electoral College sense but does need if she hopes to provide enough coattails to have a Congress she can work with.
Clinton’s broader base of support doesn’t come from her ideological positioning. It comes from a combination of factors that include being the first serious female presidential frontrunner, being of a generation that can identify with her but would normally skew Republican, having a husband whose economic record as president is remembered fondly by people all across the political spectrum, and having millions of people still voting in this country who voted for her husband but haven’t voted for a Democrat since that time. She doesn’t need to break Democratic orthodoxies to expand her support because her support is expanded to begin with. And we might as well acknowledge that race play a part in this, too. Any white Democratic nominee would get a slight boost simply by getting a portion of the racist vote that would never consider supporting the Kenyan usurper. All Democrats will also benefit from the relentless drive of demographic change, which continues to push down the percentage of the electorate that is white.
For Jeb! and the other Republicans, however, the country’s recent experience with a Republican president is beyond negative. They cannot rely on even the same base of support that Romney had four years ago. If they’re going to get any bump, it will be through fortuitous events, like the aforementioned poorly timed foreign policy setback or economic downturn. Perhaps, they may benefit from some appetite for change after eight years of a Democrat in the White House. Overall, however, they enter this contest in a state of demographic doom. If things remain the same then that change will not be coming. And, because campaigns and campaign rhetoric are overrated, they can’t expect to win simply by being more clever.
If the Republicans want to win, they really have only two options. They could hope to get very lucky, which really amounts to rooting for some disaster to befall the country, or they can break everyone’s expectations of what a Republican and the Republican Party stands for. The most glaring example of someone doing this is Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, becoming the champion of Civil Rights and Voting Rights for black people. In doing so, he completely changed the electoral map both in the immediate term and in the long term. He changed the very nature of the Democratic Party which slowly changed the nature of the Republican Party as well.
Jeb! does seem to understand that he’s got to roll the dice a bit. He’s breaking ranks on immigration policy, for example, which could conceivably change how Latinos perceive the Republicans. I think he’s trying to be cheerful rather than apocalyptic, which does separate him a bit from trolls like Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, and grumpy old John McCain. But I don’t think he’s going far enough. He’s on the right track, enough to arouse a mild amount of concern in your humble author, but he’s still too orthodox and unwilling to break with the record of his brother.
If everything remains equal, nothing will change, which is both good and bad. It’s good that the Republicans don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning so long as they keep behaving like conservative Republicans. It’s bad that we aren’t likely to do much better than we’re doing now.
[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]