Still three months to go until the Iowa caucuses, the opening event of primary season, and the field in the United States presidential election continues to narrow.
On the Democrat side, fringe candidates Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb withdrew last week, and vice-president Joe Biden confirmed that he would not become a candidate. There have been no more withdrawals among the Republicans, but this week’s third televised debate is widely seen as having dealt a mortal blow to one-time frontrunner Jeb Bush.
I remain of the view that Hillary Clinton – now running against Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders and two virtual unknowns – is unbeatable for the Democrat nomination, but the Republican race is still wide open. The disconnect between polls and odds continues: Donald Trump and Ben Carson are well clear of everyone else in the polling averages (26.8% and 22.0% respectively at RealClearPolitics), but you can get quite decent odds against them. William Hill, for example, has Trump at 5-1 and Carson at 10-1.
Punters and pundits are both coalescing, for the time being, around Florida senator Marco Rubio, who is seen as relatively electable and acceptable to the party establishment, while still conservative enough to potentially win grassroots support – when (and if) Republican voters get over their fascination with insurgent candidates like Trump and Carson.
So it’s well worth having a read of a piece in New Republic this week by Brian Beutler on the choice that the Republicans face. His argument is that the last two successful Democrat candidates, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, represent alternative strategies. Clinton, he says, “ran at a time when the Democratic Party needed to widen its appeal, and on a platform that genuinely deviated from party doctrine,” while Obama’s strength was that “as a young, African-American liberal who opposed the war in Iraq [he] reflected his party’s base better than Hillary Clinton, the anointed front-runner.”
In other words, being a (Bill) Clinton means reaching out to natural supporters of the other side, particularly white southern voters. Being an Obama, by contrast, means deepening support and therefore increasing turnout on your own side, among such groups as African-Americans and the young.
I’m not fully convinced about this way of looking at it; I think Obama also reached out to a lot of people who would previously have considered themselves Republicans, notably the affluent cosmopolitans who were put off by GOP nativism. But it’s a convenient starting point for Beutler to think about the Republican race this time.
To do that, you have to flip over the demographics. The “Clinton” strategy is to reach out to those the Republican Party has previously alienated – “to reform the party in a way that makes it appealing outside the population of white conservatives.” Rubio is a possible contender for that role, although Beutler thinks his reformism is too shallow. The “Obama” strategy is the reverse: to neglect swinging voters and appeal more strongly to the existing base: “old and white and nativist instead of young and ethnic and cosmopolitan.”
Here’s where the analogy has problems. Even if you accept that Obama’s appeal was limited to those who were already leaning Democrat, it had potential as a winning strategy because those groups had historically low turnout. Getting them to come to the polls could be enough to swing an election.
But the corresponding Republican groups are already voting. Trump, the Republican equivalent of Obama, may be able to excite the base in the primaries, but he doesn’t offer any advantage when it comes to the general election. The strategy of “maximizing white voter turnout” works well in mid-term elections (2010 and 2014), but it’s leading the party down a demographic dead end.
That’s why, as Beutler says, the Republicans really need a Clinton-style reformer. I suspect he’s right to say that Rubio isn’t quite up to the task: “Perhaps because his heterodoxies are so superficial, Rubio enjoys the support of only 23 percent of Hispanic voters, lower than the paltry share that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.”
But the problem is that Republican voters aren’t ready to stomach any more than superficial reforms. Rubio’s embrace of change has to be less than whole-hearted, because otherwise he would never have a chance at the nomination. His lukewarm reformism may not be enough, but it’s the most the Republicans are going to get.
And if Trump or Carson can stay afloat, they won’t even get that.