The biggest problem facing Democrats in November may not be ennui but over-confidence. True, Democrats seem divided right now, and the likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, does little to inspire the activist base. And there is the concern that the earnest Sanders supporters might feel slighted by a nominating process that does not choose their candidate and might be inclined to petulantly sit home on Election Day brooding about the machinations of Wall Street. And of course, there’s that lingering apprehension that something will pop out of the FBI or a congressional probe to taint Clinton at some inopportune moment, leaving Democrats with a severely damaged candidate.
Given that litany of disquieting qualifications, one might wonder why there is a question of over-confidence. There is a reasonably good chance – perhaps not as certain as some might like – that the Republican Party is on one of those slow-motion cascades to catastrophe in which American politics occasionally engages. Like 1964 (Goldwater) or 1972 (McGovern), when the more extreme base of the party outmaneuvered the established leadership, 2016 provides a new model in which the established leaders of the party risk losing control not only to a fringe candidate, but to one of two interlopers who have spent the last nine months giving a big Bronx raspberry to the party they aspire to lead.
Should either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz – both anathema to the party regulars – secure the nomination in Cleveland, there is growing anxiety (well deserved, I would argue) that many Republicans would either choose not to vote for President, as some in the party elite have already declared, or would consider voting for Hillary Clinton (especially older Republican women who have expressed just such a surprising intention in private conversations passed along to me).
Should the party rally and figure out a way to deny either Trump or Cruz the nomination despite their formidable delegate counts going into the convention, the party could face massive non-participation or worse, a third party candidacy that could mirror the horrific performance of William Howard Taft in 1912 when challenged by Theodore Roosevelt for the loyalty of Republican voters.
In either scenario, the Republican fear spreads beyond the presidential race to the down ballot impact, with some observers postulating that control of the Senate would likely flip to the Democrats and that even the House majority might be in play. Losing the White House and the Senate could be catastrophic for the GOP, although very good news for Merrick Garland and a few sitting justices of the Supreme Court who might look more favorably on retirement with a Senate and White House in sympathetic hands.
The problem for the Republicans is that the scenario actually gets worse. It is one thing to blow an election, even when all the warning signs are out there, and your primary electorate still plunges along like lemmings to the gaping abyss. But it is another thing altogether to perform so badly in an election that you inflict long-term damage on the party’s viability. That is an outcome that a growing number of Republican strategists fear, and one that could fuel Democratic over-confidence. How much worse has been described by Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster/wordsmith/ strategist who played such a key role in designing the successful Republican messaging strategy until usurped by the Tea Party zealots and now, Trump.
Luntz recently conducted a survey of young voters aged 18-26, a group with notoriously poor electoral participation levels, but who inevitably age into older voters with much higher engagement. It is, however, in their early years that their views on key issues and their identification with political parties are formulated, even if they do not act upon their preferences by casting ballots.
People who engage with young voters intuitively know how different their baseline attitudes are from those of older generations. On issues that proved highly divisive to their elders, including race, gender, abortion, and climate change, the large preponderance of young Americans do not just disagree with the more conservative views of older voters – they don’t even understand why there is an issue to discuss. In some ways, that liberality is not as helpful to Democrats as one might think, because the tolerance woven so intrinsically into younger people also may lead them to view hard-won gains as less endangered by the political process, and thereby not incentivize them to participate in electoral activity. Witness young women’s seeming nonchalance about the historic possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency.
But this nonpartisan tolerance is unquestionably bad news for Republicans. Luntz’ research confirms the party’s fears about the damage that would result from nominating an intolerant, hard-edged, divisive outsider liked Trump or Cruz. Luntz asked which contemporary political figure these young voters “like and respect the most.” Not surprisingly, many respondents feel the Bern, giving Sanders 31%. President Obama came in second at what I thought was a low 18%, and Hillary Clinton came in third at 11%. As for the Republicans? Trump does the best, but at just 9%. That doesn’t win a lot of elections.
Luntz views the problem as one with very long legs, “a chasm of disconnection that renders every prominent national Republican irrelevant with the voting bloc that could control campaigns for the next 30 years.” There’s some good historical evidence that Republicans can undercut their longterm viability with extreme positions; after California Gov. Pete Wilson decided to passionately embrace an anti-immigrant initiative in the early 1990s, Latino voters abandoned the GOP and have never returned, leaving the party virtually shut out of state-wide offices ever since.
The disconnect with conservatism extends beyond the GOP’s offering of candidates, however. Luntz was stunned to find that 58% of young Americans believe that socialism is “the most compassionate political system.” Whether they could accurately define “socialism” is another question, of course, but still, that’s a pretty impressive figure in the age of the Tea Party. Another 9% voted for communism. Capitalism, that progenitor of the American Dream, that economic system of unparalleled opportunity, didn’t do so well: just 33%. Thank Wall Street for poisoning that brand.
Capitalism, however, is doing great compared to the Republican Party. Whereas 44% of the young voters surveyed identified themselves as Democrats, just 15% identify as Republicans. It’s hard to win elections with those numbers, too. And younger Americans aren’t buying the Reagan-esque “city on a hill” story of American exceptionalism either; perhaps hardened by a decade of recession and a decade and a half of war, by constrained economic opportunities or by the divisiveness of government that seems to portray an unworkable political system, 58% believe that “American isn’t any better or worse than most other countries.”
Do these numbers tell us where these young voters will be in ten years, when they are concerned about families, jobs, college tuition, mortgages, and the other accouterments of approaching middle age? Are they even accurate, in the age of flawed polling that is exasperating analysts and observers alike? Certainly, we should be cautious about drawing too many conclusions from any one poll, but the numbers in Luntz’ survey are so egregious that even if they are off by a third, they spell grim news for the Republican Party. Democrats cannot help but be encouraged by the trends, but they better not get too over-confident before November. These young voters may not like the Republican candidates or message, but there’s worrying evidence they might be disinclined to articulate their dissatisfaction at the polls.