With Reagan’s election, the Republican Party became the dominant political party in the country for the following 25 years, amassing power at the state level and in Congress that it hadn’t achieved in decades. Only Bill Clinton was able to stop the Republican dominance during this period due to his superior political and governing skills.
By the beginning of Bush’s second term, the Republican Party had become a spent force that was no longer capable of driving the national debate. During the summer of 2005, a combination of the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and Terry Schiavo sent George W. Bush’s approval ratings into free-fall. For most of the remainder of his presidency, Bush’s ratings remained under 40 percent.
His dismal standing, combined with a Republican-controlled Congress plagued by sex scandals, corruption and out of control spending, has left the national Republican Party with net negative favorability ratings for over a decade. Over a decade.
While it is true that the Republicans now control both branches of Congress, as well as a significant majority of governorships and state legislatures around the country, it’s not enough to become the dominant political party in the country—not without the White House. Despite their successes in these recent off-year elections, Republicans have been unable to articulate a coherent national party agenda that appeals to a majority of Americans in the last two presidential elections—and they’ve lost the popular vote now in five of the last six presidential elections. At a time when the electorate’s makeup is changing and views on social issues are evolving, Republicans continue to espouse a backward vision for the country.
Second, the large Republican field, which is likely to number between 15 and 20 candidates, will make it very difficult for the party to have a serious and meaningful debate about the future. When the Republican Party enters the lengthy six-month joint appearance phase of the primary process with at least nine scheduled presidential debates, there will be a strong incentive for the candidates to “out conservative” their opponents in order to gain enough support to remain viable when the primaries and caucuses begin next February. The “brand builders” looking to capitalize on their notoriety after the presidential campaign with book deals, speaking tours and lucrative television contracts and the right wingers promoting their extreme positions on social issues are the candidates who are likely to stand out with memorable and clever sound bites in the cluttered field—just look at how Donald Trump has monopolized the GOP’s conversation over recent days.
Third, the Republican Party has continued to maintain a primary process that encourages an extended and protracted nomination fight. Under this system delegates are distributed proportionally for the first six weeks before moving to a “winner take all” allocation of delegates in the middle of March, which should finally begin a process to winnow the field. It took Romney until May 29, 2012, to secure enough delegates to lock down the nomination against an historically weak field. Just imagine what could happen next year if there are two, three or even four serious candidates headed into the spring?
Lastly, in the post-Citizens United world of unlimited amounts of unregulated money flowing into our political system, there is very little motivation for candidates to get out of the race as long as at least one of their wealthy backers continues to fund their campaigns. In a nomination fight where the system makes it very difficult to secure the necessary delegates for victory, ideologically based candidates have every incentive to stay in the race for as long as possible to promote their views.
In addition to the four challenges outlined, there are several other significant obstacles that Republicans must contend with in order to win the presidency next year. The first is the math. The current Electoral College map continues to clearly favor Democrats. In every one of the past six elections Democrats have carried 18 states plus the District of Columbia, totaling 242 of the 270 electoral votes necessary to win. During this same period, Republicans have carried 13 states totaling just 102 electoral votes.
Perhaps just as significantly, given the history of elections going back to 1980, Obama’s relative popularity continues to pose a challenge for Republicans intent on taking back the White House. Unlike his predecessors whose popularity varied greatly throughout their time in office, Obama’s all-important job approval ratings have remained quite durable and have stayed within a narrow band since the summer of 2009, with a high of 53 percent and a low of 40 percent. If there’s an expectation that the economy will continue to improve, it is even more likely that his approval ratings will hold in the upper end of this range. If that happens, the Democratic nominee would be in a very favorable position to hold the White House next year.
Working off of this thin margin, how and when the Republican nomination fight is settled is likely to determine their chances of winning the presidency next year. The longer it takes Republicans to unite behind a common agenda and a nominee, the more likely that Democrats will be able—for the first time since 1940—to hold the White House for 12 consecutive years.