the closer magazine photos The end of the 2016 presidential election is actually much closer than you might think.
In every game there are decisive moments that determine the ultimate outcome. We like to think that presidential elections are dramatic fall campaigns pitting party magazine against party, but the truth is that the most decisive moments often occur long before the general election kicks off. If history is any guide, the outcome of next year’s presidential campaign will likely be determined before the Republican Party has even selected their nominee. That uncomfortable fact means that the longer and more divisive the Republican primary, the less likely the party will be to win back the White House in 2016.
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In eight out of the last nine presidential elections these decisive periods of time can all be traced back to the run up to the general election—not the fall campaign. With the exception of the 2000 election—which was an outlier on every front—voters locked in their attitudes about the direction of the country, the state of their own well-being and the presidential candidates—and their political party—prior to the start of the general election. Once voters’ views solidified, subsequent campaign events or activities simply served to reinforce their initial perceptions about the candidate and party best prepared to lead the country.
In general, the job approval ratings of the incumbent president, regardless of whether they are running for reelection, serve as a proxy for the electorate’s mood and have historically been the most accurate predictor of election outcomes. And the public’s view of the state of the economy and its expectations for the future are the strongest drivers of the job approval ratings of the sitting president. Since 1980 there have been five presidential elections where the incumbent had a job approval rating near or above 50 percent prior to the start of the general election. In each of these elections, the incumbent’s party won the election. In the three instances when the incumbent president’s job approval fell below 40 percent prior to the start of the general election, their party lost each time.
Conventional wisdom has it that the 1980 presidential election was an exception to this rule, but in truth that race only bolsters the pattern. The lore from the race had Jimmy Carter headed to re-election before his support disintegrated in the final two weeks of the election, leading to a massive defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan. But that analysis ignored the most significant factors that ultimately determined the outcome of the election. It’s true that Carter led in the polls in the three-way race until the middle of October. However, by mid-May his job approval rating had dropped to 38 percent; it remained under 40 percent for the rest of the campaign. Despite the fact that he led in the polls until mid-October, Carter’s job approval numbers reflected the fact that the country had decided six months before the election that they had had enough of him. By the end of October the anti-incumbent vote had consolidated around Reagan, with Carter’s final 41 percent vote reflecting his low approval ratings throughout the year.
Since Reagan’s 1980 victory, the media have continued to over-emphasize the significance of the general election in presidential races. Rather than reporting on the fundamentals that will ultimately determine election outcomes, the media continue to place a relentless focus on the daily tracking polls—despite the fact that they have proven increasingly inaccurate over the last 20 years. The last presidential race is a good example. In 2012, reporters who followed the ups and downs of the tracking polls concluded that Romney had surged following the first presidential debate. But in reality Obama had already put the election away long before the Republicans had selected their nominee. Obama’s final 51 percent of the vote closely tracked his job approval numbers that remained steady and well within that range during the last year of his first term.
It’s not just history that suggests that the significance of the general election has diminished. There has also been a steady increase in voters casting ballots long before Election Day, with 33 states plus the District of Columbia allowing some form of early voting. Today, every state west of the Mississippi allows early voting. In three of those states—Colorado, Oregon and Washington—all votes are cast by mail before Election Day. In the 2012 election, nationwide 32 percent of all ballots were cast early, with an increasing number of states allowing voting to begin 45 days before Election Day. In these states ballots are being cast prior to the fall presidential debates.
There is every indication that past trends will continue to hold in 2016 and that the outcome of the presidential election will come into focus well before the general election. During this period when voters are beginning to seriously contemplate the type of person they want to lead the country, the Republicans will likely be in the middle of a prolonged and messy internecine intra-party fight—a fight that the unique attributes of the 2016 election will likely make more vocal, extreme and prolonged than the party will wish.
This period of primaries and caucuses will be marked by a relentless barrage of negative ads by the candidates designed to drive down the image of their opponents. At the same time, Republicans will be focused on locking down the hearts and minds of their right-wing base voters rather than appealing for mainstream support.
If these challenges aren’t enough, there are a series of factors—when taken together—during this critical period that that will further complicate Republicans’ attempts to take back the White House.
First, and foremost, the battle for the Republican nomination for president is really an existential fight about the future direction of the party rather than merely a race to collect a majority of delegates. At its core this is an ideological fight with the ascendant tea party-inspired populist and libertarian wing of the party poised to take over the GOP. This Koch brothers-backed effort is being built, funded and operated outside the national political party structure.
Doug Sosnik was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and co-wrote a New York Times best-seller on the future of politics in the United States.
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