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“Do Republicans Think It Will Be Easy To Beat Hillary?”: Continuing To Believe In Circumstances Shaped By Their Own Talking Points

What is the Republican theory of the 2016 election? Is it that the Democrats have developed a durable demographic advantage in national elections and that the GOP must nominate someone who can broaden the party’s reach beyond core constituencies, as Republicans concluded after the 2012 debacle?

Or is it increasingly that such demographic concerns can be tossed to the winds — that Hillary Clinton is such a flawed candidate that Republicans don’t have to worry too much about picking a standard bearer with broad general election appeal?

The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein has a good piece today in which he posits the latter theory. Klein’s overall point is that the two parties are each making wildly different assumptions about next year’s contest — and that this has driven each party further into its own ideological corner, portending an unusually charged and intense general election battle.

Democrats, Klein points out, are betting that the last two presidential elections show that the way to win is to reconstitute the Obama coalition of millennials, nonwhites, and socially liberal college educated whites. The robust liberal consensus on display at the last debate shows that Hillary Clinton is fully embracing this coalition’s priorities. As I’ve also argued, Democrats see no need to believe this will compromise her in a general election, since many of these policies also have majority support.

The Republican theory of the 2016 election, however, is very different. Here’s how Klein describes it:

Republicans, on the other hand, are making a completely different calculation. Looking ahead to the 2016 campaign, they see Hillary Clinton’s numbers steadily tanking under an ethical cloud, as a growing number of Americans say they don’t trust her. Polls have shown Republicans ahead of Clinton even in Pennsylvania, a blue state that has eluded GOP nominees for decades. They’re confident that her weaknesses as a candidate have made the presidency ripe for the picking. Given this sense of optimism, they see no reason to settle.

Instead, as of this writing, half of Republican primary voters polled nationally are supporting candidates who have never held elective office. At the same time, candidates who fit the profile of a traditional Republican nominee (such as Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich) are at about 10 percent — combined….when the dust settles, it’s difficult to see the Republican electorate deciding that to beat Clinton, they need an “electable moderate” in the mold of Bob Dole, John McCain or Mitt Romney.

Klein seems to be talking mainly about what’s driving the thinking of GOP primary voters. This gives rise to a question: Do serious Republican strategists and establishment figures really believe this? Do they think Clinton is suddenly proving so unexpectedly flawed — thanks to the email scandal and Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly robust challenge — that they are now less inclined to worry about the need for a candidate who can help offset the party’s structural and demographic disadvantages?

If so, you’d think recent events would undercut that confidence. After months of being on the defensive over the email story, we’ve now seen an unexpectedly strong debate performance from Clinton. New fundraising numbers show that she enjoys a large advantage over the serious GOP candidates, and that rank-and-file Democrats may be very energized. A series of disastrous moments of candor from Republicans about the Benghazi probe have undermined the credibility of GOP efforts to exploit the email story. While none of these guarantees anything for Clinton, you’d think they’d remind Republicans that politics changes quickly and that placing too many chips on Clinton’s weakness might be misguided.

And yet recent history demonstrates that GOP strategists sometimes do place too much stock in overly confident, ill-thought-through assessments of the weakness of the opposing candidate and what appear to be insurmountable (but actually prove ephemeral or misleading) political circumstances. In 2012, for instance, the Romney campaign convinced itself that there was no way Obama could possibly get reelected amid such difficult economic circumstances: this made it inevitable that Obama would meet the fate that befell Jimmy Carter, when undecided voters shifted against him to hand Ronald Reagan a big victory. (That itself is bad history, but that underscores my point.) The larger Romney campaign calculation was that there was no way swing voters could possibly see Obama as anything but a total, abject failure, since Republicans knew he had been one. But that reading turned out to be seriously flawed.

Meanwhile, the Romney camp also convinced itself that there was no way the 2012 electorate could possibly be as diverse as it had been in 2008, presumably since Obama’s election was probably a fluke driven by the cult of personality that driven nonwhite and young voters into a frenzy that had worn off once they realized who he really was. That also turned out to be wrong. The point is that Republican operatives adopted a strategic view of the opposing candidate and his circumstances that was largely shaped by their own talking points about him and less about a hard-headed and nuanced look at deeper factors.

Hillary Clinton will of course not be as strong a candidate as Obama was. She does have serious weaknesses. History tilts against one party winning the White House three times in a row. And the question of whether she can mobilize the Obama coalition in Obama-like numbers is a big unknown. But superficial assessments of her current weaknesses — which could be reinforced if Republicans believe their talking points about her — could obscure an appreciation of the built-in advantages that she may enjoy. She could benefit from structural factors such as continued demographic change. The Democratic agenda (this is another possibility that the Romney camp seemed incapable of grasping) may prove more popular than the Republican one with the national electorate, brash assessments that Hillary has lurched “left” notwithstanding. The very real chance at electing the first female president could prove a major factor. And it’s possible — yes, possible — that the Clinton camp may successfully neutralize the email mess after all.

It would be interesting to know just how seriously the smartest GOP operatives are taking these possibilities. Paul Waldman argues today that Republican operatives and establishment figures are not exactly adopting a hard-headed approach to the electability question.

Of course, if Klein is right, and GOP voters are deciding that Clinton is so weak that they need not worry about their standard-bearer’s electability, then it may not matter what Republican strategists and establishment figures think. They aren’t the ones who are picking the GOP nominee.

 

By: Greg Sargent, The Plum Line Blog, October 16, 2015

October 19, 2015 - Posted by | Election 2016, Hillary Clinton, Republicans | , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. They certainly believe that. Republicans are solid block of voters , Democrats aren’t.

    Like

    Comment by renxkyoko | October 19, 2015 | Reply


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