Opinion

Why Hillary Clinton will struggle to rebuild the Obama coalition

The stars aligned for the Democrats in 2008 and 2012. It may not happen a third time.

In the wake of the disastrous midterms for Democrats, analysis of their prospects for the 2016 elections — and especially the outlook for Hillary Clinton — ranged from shrugs to panic. Some argued that the unique turnout models of midterms do not allow for any projections in a presidential cycle, while others talked about an electoral realignment. Neither extreme applies, but the elections show that the Democrats do have a big problem: it will not be easy for Hillary Clinton, should she choose to run, to rebuild the coalition that won two elections for President Obama.

First of all, one must take care not to over-apply the midterm results to non-midterm elections. Republicans learned that lesson in 2012, especially when it came to analyzing poll results. Analysts on the right, including myself, made the mistake of thinking that the electorate had changed permanently in 2012, going so far as to "unskew the polls" to apply a turnout model closer to the 2010 results. While the 2012 election turned out millions fewer voters for Barack Obama, the model of those who did vote trended much closer to 2008 than 2010, and the president won re-election over Mitt Romney.

Similarly, Democrats and analysts on the left hoped that the 2014 midterm turnout would prove 2010 a fluke. That assumption turned out to be wrong, and the failure produced similar results. Pollsters assumed that Democrats' get-out-the-vote efforts would recreate their success from two years earlier. Even Republican pollsters bet incorrectly in that regard, which created poor decisions on resource outlays.

The points is that voter predictions have always relied on assumptions about the demographics. The gathering of data was not the issue, but how it got applied.

That has been a problem ever since Barack Obama first ran for president. After two terms of George W. Bush, nearly everyone predicted that the nation would turn to the Democrats, especially after the GOP got creamed in the 2006 midterms. The Clintons had kept their political machine in place, waiting for the opportunity to make a return to the White House. With national discontent directed at Republicans and Hillary Clinton winning a second term in the U.S. Senate, the conventional wisdom considered the Democratic primary a coronation rather than a fight.

Enter Obama. Largely on the basis of his memoirs and a blockbuster speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama offered a change from the normal political cycles. He got people who normally sat on the sidelines interested in the electoral process. His team proved superior at identifying Democratic primary voters and getting them to the polls. The freshman senator found new donors and new activists to outperform even the Clinton machine, overturning all assumptions about the composition of the electorate as Obama inspired a youth movement.

He outfought the Clintons to the end, and wound up trouncing John McCain in the general election. Four years later, Obama hung onto enough of those voters to see "the Obama coalition" triumph one more time.

The problem for Hillary Clinton is just that point. Without Obama at the top of the ticket, even in the reduced-inspiration mode of 2012, that coalition is unlikely to emerge a third time. Whatever other qualities she will bring to a presidential campaign, neither novelty nor outsider populism will be among them. The Clintons are a known commodity; by the time the 2016 elections arrive, they will have been part of the Washington, D.C., scene for almost a quarter-century.

Furthermore, the national mood has shifted away from Democrats, thanks to Barack Obama. His approval ratings have plummeted, and a new scandal this week with ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber won't restore much luster to the Democratic brand. The shoe is squarely on the other foot for Democrats in 2016.

The Clinton team still hasn't recognized the reality of the predicament faced by Hillary and her party. Talking Points Memo interviewed Ready For Hillary activist Mitch Stewart, who claimed that the Clintons could compete for voters who rejected Democrats two weeks ago, especially in states like Arkansas, Indiana, and Missouri. "Where I think Secretary Clinton has more appeal than any other Democrat looking at running," Stewart argued, "is that with white working-class voters, she does have a connection."

There are a number of holes in that argument, but let's look at Arkansas first. Both Clintons campaigned hard in Arkansas for incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor, who lost his Senate seat to Tom Cotton by a whopping 17 points. He won only 29 percent of white working-class voters, despite having a well-known family name, the advantages of incumbency, and full-throated support from the former first couple of Arkansas.

Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post explains that Stewart's assumptions are based on a voter model that's outdated, plus it ignores the fact that any improvement would be incremental at best. Both Indiana and Missouri have become much more Republican, even in elections with Obama on the top of the ticket; he lost both states in 2012 after winning them in 2008. "Clinton would almost certainly do better with white working-class voters than Obama did," Cillizza writes. "But, in some of the states that Stewart puts in that first bucket, that's a pretty low bar."

Obama transformed the electorate by being a transformational candidate, at least in promise and theory. He also had the wind at his back with the economic collapse in late 2008 and general fatigue with Bush and Republicans. The latter has reversed, which means that any Democrat would have a difficult time inspiring the Obama coalition back into force, let alone an establishment figure (and an Obama administration official) like Hillary Clinton.

She looks less like Barack Obama in this scenario than she resembles John McCain. She would be running on a damaged party brand, representing continuity rather than change — a symptom of the problems of Washington rather than their cure.

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