Message to the Republican Party: be afraid, be very afraid.
Hillary Clinton stands atop of the Democratic 2016 scrum, set to resume where Bill left off. A second Clinton candidacy would likely put the white vote in play and jeopardize the GOP’s dominance in the Old Confederacy. Recent polls put Hillary ahead of possible Republican challengers in vote-rich Texas and in Kentucky, home of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul.
Unlike her husband, Hillary is personally disciplined. Unlike Barack Obama, she has demonstrated an ability to connect with beer-track voters across the country.
To understand why Hillary is particularly dangerous to the Republican Party, recall where the Democratic Party stood on the eve of Bill’s 1992 run for the White House, poised for what would have been their sixth loss in seven presidential elections.
The 1960s marked the exodus of blue-collar ethnics and Southerners from the Democratic Party. What was once the base of the FDR’s New Deal coalition headed for the exits in the aftermath of inner-city rioting, violent protests, and rancorous demonstrations. White flight marked Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory over George McGovern. Nixon won 61 percent of the popular vote and two thirds of ballots casts by white voters. Not even Ronald Reagan equaled that margin. And in the South, the Democratic vote crumbled, as McGovern gleaned less than three in 10 voters there.
Roe v. Wade came next. The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision recognized abortion as a constitutionally protected right and was a milestone for the women’s movement. But in politics as in physics, actions generate reactions, and it also helped to forge an alliance between devout Catholics and evangelical Protestants. By the end of 1988, white Catholics had voted Republican in three consecutive presidential elections. The Democratic Party was no longer their natural home. For its part, the GOP was no longer the exclusive enclave of Thurston Howell III, the descendants of Union soldiers, or Northern rural Protestants. Instead, the Republican Party had morphed into a winning, albeit monochromatic, coalition.
Enter Bill Clinton. His candidacy and presidency reversed the Democrats’ fortunes by playing to voters who had become dissatisfied with the Republican Party’s overt piety and Southern-fried politics, but who were wary of the Democrats’ sympathy for identity and grievance politics, foreign policy by McGovern-Carter, and disdain for market-based economics. Both Ice Storm suburbanites and Reagan Democrats were receptive to Bill’s message.
Bill’s attack on Sister Souljah and embrace of free trade signaled that he was breaking from Democratic orthodoxies. The numbers told the story.
In 1992 Bill Clinton came within 1 point of winning a plurality of white voters. He came within 3 points in 1996. No Democratic candidate has since come that close. Indeed, Barack Obama garnered less than two in five white votes against a hapless Mitt Romney. To top it off, Clinton also tied the Republicans in the South in 1996. There was stirring in Dixie.
At the electoral high end, the Ivy Leaguers of the 1960s had grown up and traded their beards, tattered jeans, and placards for Wall Street, Ralph Lauren suits, business cards, and a home in Larchmont. And so Clinton won an outright majority of voters with graduate degrees and kept the GOP to less than 60 percent among affluent voters. In fact, since 1992 grad-degree voters have gone Democratic in each subsequent presidential election.
Bill’s successes served as the electoral predicate for Obama’s victories and position Hillary to pick up where Obama ultimately leaves off. Obama won reelection by forging a New Deal 2.0 coalition in the industrial Midwest, while cementing a high-end low-end coalition in the South of college-educated whites and minorities.
Although Obama lost among non-college-graduate whites by 19 points nationwide, his deficit among that same demographic in the Great Lakes was only in the single digits. Significantly, Ohio and Pennsylvania held for Obama in 2012, two of the states which Obama lost to Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries.
And that is where the GOP’s problem begins. In addition to benefiting from Obama’s ascendant coalition of younger voters, minorities, and women, Hillary connects with the white working class and would likely improve upon Obama’s showing among this bloc. Instead of the forced optics of Obama sitting down to a beer with the prof and the cop, voters would likely be treated to moments of a relaxed Hillary knocking back a boilermaker in Youngstown or Dearborn.
Clinton could make a serious play in the South and build upon existing margins in the Midwest. North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas would be in play. Indeed, Hillary could reclaim the newest bloc of swing voters: America’s wealthy.
In 2008 voters with incomes north of $200,000 went Democratic, as did college graduates. Historically, that was huge. It marked the fact that the wealthy were no longer reflexively Republican. In 2012 wealthier Americans went Republican, but by a smaller margin than in 2004. In other words, high-end America is up for grabs, and Hillary appears better suited to take advantage of that fact than Obama was.
Four years is a long time. The economy is a slog, and the world remains a dangerous place. But at this early juncture, with the Republican Party in disarray and disfavor, Hillary looks like the one to beat.