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How Democrats Can Keep the White House in 2016

Democrats are cautious but optimistic that the underlying political dynamics favor them in the 2016 presidential election.
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While they’re loath to say or do anything that could be read as (re-)measuring the drapes in the Oval Office, Democrats feel quietly confident they can win the White House again a year from now.

Even before the candidates from either party are selected, or the campaigns take the field for the general election, or the major policy issues at play come into focus, Democrats know most of the macro political forces in the country favor their nominee in 2016. They predict a close, hard-fought race, but one they’ll ultimately win, the same way they did in 2012 and 2008.

However, Democrats will have overcome at least one major headwind to do so — modern political history. After two terms in the White House, Americans tend to elect the opposing party. The one exception to this rule since World War II was George H.W. Bush, and even then, he was removed from office after just one term.

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At a time when Americans are so fed up with Washington, would they really want to give Democrats another four or eight years in power?

Democrats hope to channel that frustration against Republicans in Congress, and if Americans are happy with President Obama when they get to the polls next November, they may feel comfortable returning Democrats to 1600 Pennsylvania. The good news for the party is that Obama has a enviable approval rating just shy of 50 percent — a far cry the dismal 31 percent approval rating George W. Bush had in November of 2007.

That helps explain why the party’s likely nominee Hillary Clinton, who is inextricably tied to Obama by having served on his cabinet, has chosen to embrace most of his legacy rather than run from it. And why Vice President Joe Biden considered a run based explicitly on Obama’s record.

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James Carville was right when he said Bill Clinton would win the 1992 election because of “the economy, stupid.” Political scientists say one of the biggest factors in how Americans view the White House and who they think should control it is whether the economy seems to be doing better or worse. More than eight in 10 voters say the economy will a very important issue for them in 2016.

Fortunately for Democrats, forecasters predict the economy will continue to strengthen over the next 12 months. The Federal Reserve predicts the unemployment will be down to just 4.8 percent in 2016 and that GPD will grow by a modest but healthy 2.3 percent.

“Odds are good that by Election Day the economy will be at full employment, growing strongly,” Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi told the New York Times. “The economic winds will be at the back of incumbents.” Of course forecasts are just that and could change.

But by far the biggest advantage Democrats have heading into 2016 is the electoral map.

“We basically have a Florida-sized head start on them,” said Mitch Stewart, the battleground states director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign who now runs the firm 270 Strategies, so named for the number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Democrats have a floor of about 230 electoral votes, while the GOP floor is only about 190, according to Stewart. That means Democrats have many more paths to get to 270 than Republicans. For instance, Democrats could lose the perennial swing states of Florida and Ohio and still win through a combination of smaller states, while Florida is an absolute must-win for Republicans.

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The map has shifted remarkably towards Democrats as the country has become more diverse and more polarized. For instance, in 2000, Washington, Oregon, and Minnesota were all considered tossup states, while Virginia and North Carolina were not even in the realm of possibility for Democrats. In 2012, Democrats easily carried the first three states, won Virginia, and narrowly lost North Carolina (they won it in 2008).

In 2012, Colorado ended up being the tipping-point state for Obama to get to 270, according to Stewart, so Florida and Ohio (where Obama also won) and reach-states like North Carolina (where he lost) were just icing on the cake, and became states where Democratic engagement forced Republicans to divert money and resources.

The math hasn’t changed much in the past four years, and if anything, may have marginally benefited Democrats. In 2008, 26 percent of the electorate was non-white. In 2012, it was 28 percent. By 2016, Census data suggests it is likely to be 30 percent non-white. With a roughly 2-1 margin over Republicans among non-white voters, that’s great news for Democrats.

And it’s not just race. Rising education levels are also likely to add to the ranks of Democrats, since college degree holders are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.

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For Republicans, this means their base is shrinking. The GOP’s strongest cohort — non-college educated whites — are expected to fall three percentage points from 2012 as a share of the total electorate.

Of course, the Achilles Heel of the Obama-era Democratic coalition is actually getting its voters to the polls. Young people, Hispanics, and African-Americans tend to vote in lower percentages than older people and whites. This pitfall was proven twice in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, when Democratic voters didn’t show up and the party got decimated.

That will likely be different in a presidential election year, when people perceive more to be at stake and vastly more money is spent reminding people to vote and getting them to polls. But it will also be up to Clinton or whoever the party’s nominee is to excite those voters enough to show up.