Culture will likely shape the 2016 presidential elections, and this is bad news for the Republican Party. Recent polls show Hillary Clinton running well among white voters overall, showing real strength among white non-evangelical Protestants, and running competitively among white Catholics. Trailing only among evangelicals, Clinton is poised to move beyond the upstairs-downstairs coalition that brought Barack Obama to the White House, and that continues to characterize his policies and presidency to this day.
On multiple levels Clinton is not Obama, and GOP swipes at Clinton over her age and health appear to have gained less traction among voters than digs leveled at the President over his birth certificate and religion. Instead of faltering, Clinton is building upon her bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination, when she stitched together wins in industrial and large states by winning a majority of white voters.
Take Pennsylvania, which Clinton loyalist and talking head James Carville once described as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” Its Democrats definitively preferred Clinton over Obama in the state’s 2008 presidential primaries. Six years ago, Clinton beat Obama by nine points, and now she leads prospective 2016 Republican contenders Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, and Mike Huckabee among Pennsylvania’s white voters in general, and surprisingly among white voters without college degrees. If the GOP cannot capture working-class votes outside of the South, it will again face defeat.
To be sure, Pennsylvania is not a must-win for the Republicans, and it last went Republican in 1988 when George H.W. Bush announced his support for continued restrictions on imported steel. Still, Clinton’s strength in Pennsylvania is not dissimilar to her recent showings elsewhere in the Rust Belt. Polls also show Clinton leading all comers in Ohio and in Wisconsin, where she is ahead of native son Ryan, incumbent Governor Scott Walker, and the rest of the Republican field. For the GOP, these numbers are disconcerting as they crystalize the Republicans’ modernity gap, which puts them at a disadvantage with women and voters with graduate degrees, while at the same time being forced to woo the non-Southern white working class.
So far, the Republicans appear stymied in their efforts to lay a glove on Clinton, and it’s not just attacks on her health that have gone nowhere. Take Benghazi, for example. Repeated GOP attacks on Obama and Clinton have managed to fire up the Republican base and given Americans one more reason to question government’s capacity to do much of anything well. Yet, Benghazi has not stuck to Clinton, even as Obama’s National Security adviser, Susan Rice, looks like a talking-point-reading-shill based on her misleading Sunday morning talk-show performances.
But it’s the hot-button social issues that stand to give the Republicans the greatest difficulty, with women being a majority of voters, religious “nones and others” a growing proportion of the electorate, while evangelicals have become a majority of Republican presidential primary voters. According to Gallup, the country is split over abortion, with 47 percent of Americans describing themselves as pro-choice, and 46 percent describing themselves as pro-life.
Yet scratch beneath the surface, and a clear Republican disadvantage emerges, as women are definitively pro-choice, and it is men who break pro-life. Thus, abortion is another gender gap issue where men and the GOP come out second-best.
Just look at Virginia. The seat of the Confederacy and the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee went for Barack Obama twice in a row. More than 60 percent of Virginians expressed their support for abortion being legal in all or most instances, and not surprisingly those voters went Democratic. For the Republicans that’s a headache as no Republican since 1920 has made it to the White House without winning Virginia. Ohio’s exit polls tell a similar story, with more than five out of nine Ohioans supporting abortion rights, and a majority of those voters backing Obama in 2012.
Yet the GOP has little latitude on the issue. If a contender abandons the party’s orthodoxy, he faces doom in the primaries. If a contender sticks with the platform, winning in November remains an uphill climb, especially against Clinton, who is pro-choice, but was also was a member of the congressional Bible-study group as a senator, and is a church-going Methodist. In other words, Clinton is no Obama, who infrequently worships in public and whose pastor back in Chicago was the hate-spewing Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
At the moment, the GOP has little room to maneuver against Clinton. Yes, the economy remains sclerotic, work force participation is abysmal, and wages stagnate. To top it off, while America’s economy was contracting in the first quarter of 2014, next door in Canada the economy somehow managed to grow. But America has recovered the number of jobs it lost in the recession, even if those jobs are heavily concentrated in lower-paying sectors, and the stock market continues to hit new records almost daily. On Friday, both the Dow and the S&P 500 closed at record highs.
In theory, Clinton remains vulnerable because of her ties to Wall Street, and the Democrats’ war on coal. the Republicans appear ill-equipped to capitalize on either front against Clinton. Republicans are mesmerized by their own donor base, witness the GOP’s contenders fawning all over Sheldon Adelson, and New Jersey’s Chris Christie breaking bread with disgraced hedge fund guru Steven A. Cohen on Election Night 2013—even after Cohen’s company had pleaded guilty to criminal insider trading charges.
As for coal, the Republicans went at Obama over his war on coal last time out, and they lost. Mitt Romney won West Virginia and Kentucky, states that would go Republican anyway (yes, West Virginia is now a GOP state at the presidential level), while far more electorally important Ohio and Virginia stayed Democratic. If Obama could pull that off, it is safe to say that Clinton will have a good shot at doing that too. Right now, the white voters in swing-state America are smiling at Clinton, and if they’re there for her on Election Day 2016, the GOP will need to reinvent its playbook. A Southern evangelical party that cannot get beyond its base is destined to be in the political wilderness for a long time.