By Mark S. Mellman - 03/11/14 07:26 PM EDT
It’s way too early to say anything useful about the 2016 presidential election. But that’s not stopping anyone else, so I might as well chime in too.
As long as we are discussing it, we might as well be honest: Nothing suggests 2016 will be easy for the Democratic nominee — nothing except the Republicans, that is.
Obviously the 2016 Democratic nominee will be seeking that difficult-to-achieve third party term. Moreover, she or he will likely be doing so in a climate where other key drivers of electoral outcomes might not be pointing in particularly positive directions.
An incumbent president’s approval rating is related to the support garnered by his putative successor. When Bush senior won that third GOP term, incumbent Ronald Reagan’s approval was at 60 percent. We have no way of knowing where President Obama will stand in the fall of 2016, but Reagan’s 60 percent approval is about 17 points higher that Obama’s current number.
Economics is always a potent force in elections, as well. 1988 was a relatively strong year. Again, we can’t know what the circumstances will be in 2016, but it’s not hard to imagine a situation akin to our current level of real income growth, which remains far more anemic than it was in the late ’80s.
So while circumstances could improve materially by 2016, the environment is likely to be challenging. However, one thing working clearly in Democrats’ favor is the Republican field.
Speculation in this realm too is wildly premature, but we can read a few tea leaves.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was probably the most electable potential GOP candidate, but since Bridgegate, he has fallen on hard times. From July 2013 through September, he led almost every GOP primary poll. Since November he hasn’t led in one.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio: Turkey attack 'directed' by ISIS Trump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office GOP mega-donor: Trump would cause 'global depression' MORE (R-Fla.) led before Christie, but his stand on immigration reform clearly alienated some of the party base. Turning his back on his own bill hardly enshrined him as a profile in courage, either.
The current leaders on the GOP side are Kentucky Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office Trump hires Rand Paul's former digital director: report Trump flexes new digital muscle MORE and former Alabama Gov. Mike Huckabee — both of whom are eminently beatable. Huckabee has been around the block before with limited success, revealing very narrow appeal, though his Fox News show has likely put him back in contention. Huckabee clearly represents the socially conservative, evangelical wing of the GOP, a segment that holds great sway in the nominating process but has very limited appeal with an electorate where social liberalism is on the rise. It’s hard to imagine a candidate focused on gay-bashing and making abortion illegal gaining much traction with the 2016 electorate.
Paul won the CPAC straw poll for the second year in a row, by a wide margin. Yet in the electorate at large, his unfavorables are higher than his favorables. His brand of extreme isolationism puts him at odds with most elements of his own party, let alone with independents and Democrats. Moreover, his close identification with the now very unpopular Tea Party will also make him an easy political target in a general election.
So while Democrats might face difficult terrain heading into 2016, Republicans could well ride to their rescue by nominating an essentially unelectable candidate.
It’s not the only way a Democrat can win, but it may be the easiest, and the most likely, route to victory.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.