by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Irresistible force meets immovable object. That’s one way to describe the 2016 presidential campaign.
The immovable object is the close and bitter partisan division that has prevailed in general elections for the last two decades. The irresistible force is the corrosive discontent of American voters, their sense that the nation is on the wrong track and that experienced leaders are more the problem than the solution.
The immovable object may prove, in the end, to be immoveable. In which case, it becomes easy to forecast the shape of the presidential race, but hard to predict the winner. In all of this century’s presidential elections, Republicans and Democrats have won between 46 and 53 percent of the vote. In the historical sense, that’s a narrow range. No nominee has come close to winning the 57 to 61 percent landslides registered by Democrats and Republicans in 1936, 1956, 1964, 1972 and 1984.
The same phenomenon has been apparent in congressional elections, which have been a good proxy for support of the president and his party since the middle 1990s. In nine of 11 elections starting in 1994, Republicans have won between 48 and 52 percent of the popular vote for the House, and Democrats between 44 and 49 percent. Again, a historically narrow range.
The two exceptions were in 2006 and 2008, when George W. Bush’s job approval plunged to 30 percent levels, when Democrats won 53 and 54 percent and Republicans 45 and 43 percent. Democrats hoped that would turn out to be a new normal, but in 2010, 2012 and 2014, the House popular vote swung back into the 1994-2004 range. …
… So it’s reasonable to conclude that if the immovable object of stark partisan division remains immovable, the contours of the 2016 presidential vote will look much like those in recent elections. Particularly the most recent, 2012, since Barack Obama is president, with job approval slightly below 50 percent, and the near-certain Democratic nominee is his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. In that event, the race will be decided by voters in the 11 purple states.