Dan Pfeiffer: GOP faces an uphill battle in the Electoral College and most of its leading candidates seem ill-suited to overcoming that
He says Rubio may be best positioned to challenge the Democratic candidate but so far voter enthusiasm for him seems slight
Editor’s Note: Dan Pfeiffer is a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and served in the White House in a variety of roles, including communications director. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
When thinking about the 2016 election and judging the strengths and weaknesses of the Republican candidates, it’s important to keep two things in mind:
1) As Dan Balz pointed out in The Washington Post a few months ago, if the Republican nominee wins the same share of the white vote in 2016 that Mitt Romney won in 2012, he or she would need to receive 30% of the non-white vote to win the White House. Romney won 17% of the non-white vote in ‘12, so this a tall order.
2) In 2012, President Barack Obama won 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206. The Republican nominee could flip Florida, Ohio and Virginia – the three biggest swing states – into the red column and would still lose to a Democrat 272-268.
The point is that the Republican nominee has to have significantly broader appeal than Romney (who was the most broadly appealing GOP candidate in ‘12).
Being a little better, a little defter and having a few less vulnerabilities will not be enough to return a Republican to the White House.
Given those facts, this is a summary based on various conversations, text chains, emails and tweets over the last many months of how the Democrats that elected Barack Obama twice think about the leading Republican candidates (in no particular order):
The biggest task for the Democratic nominee is turning out the “Obama Coalition” of Latinos, young voters, African Americans and women. Thanks to his inflammatory rhetoric and misogynistic statements, Trump would go a long way to accomplishing that goal all on his own. And if he doesn’t improve his net unfavorable rating, he is unelectable.
However, Trump should not be completely discounted.
Despite being a billionaire several times over (so he says), Trump has the most purely populist message on either side of the aisle and his social media savvy and ability to dominate the online conversation give him a distinct advantage in our hyperspeed, fractious news environment.
If the Democrats were to design their perfect candidate to take on Hillary Clinton in a Weird Science-style lab, it would be Jeb Bush. A 60-plus politically maladroit and scion to a wealthy family with the last name “Bush” is a gift to Democrats trying to achieve the very difficult feat of winning three elections in a row. Jeb nullifies one Clinton’s greatest weaknesses: being seen as a candidate of the past.
In a battle of legacies, the Clinton legacy is much more popular than the Bush one. Team Obama was mystified late last year when the political cognoscenti gushed over Jeb Bush’s political skills and electability. Over our eight years working for President Obama, we had to wrestle with the rapidly changing media landscape, so we knew how hard it would be for a candidate who last stood for election when MySpace was a thing and Facebook wasn’t.
The former HP CEO is probably the best debater on the Republican side. A Fiorina vs. Clinton debate would be great television. Fiorina would also nullify the historic nature of a Clinton trying to become the first woman to win the White House, which will be an important part of Clinton’s get-out-the-vote message next fall.
However, Fiorina’s record as CEO of the technology company is the kind of thing opposition researchers and political ad makers dream of.
When Romney’s business career came under fire, he had his record as governor and working on the Olympics to fall back on. Fiorina has no such fallback plan. The entire rationale for her candidacy is a house of cards that will come tumbling down pretty quickly – as it did in her 2010 thumping at the hands of Barbara Boxer in California.
No Democrat anywhere has spent any time worrying about Ben Carson becoming president of the United States. I won’t waste your time or mine on him.
Cruz is running the best organized and most strategic campaign of anyone on the Republican side, and he is a dark horse favorite to win the nomination. It’s easy to underestimate Cruz – but he isn’t actually crazy, he just acts crazy because that’s what sells in today’s Republican Party. If sane sold, he would be sane.
His biggest weakness, in addition to being less appealing and likeable to a broad segment of the electorate than Romney (not a small thing), is that his party may hate him more than they hate the idea of another Democrat in the White House.
Cruz pushing Republicans into the ill-fated 2013 government shutdown burned a lot of bridges with the rest of the party. It’s pretty hard to get elected if your party is divided, and a lot of establishment Republican and business types could sit out 2016 if Cruz is the nominee.
There is no question that Rubio is the Republican that Democrats fear most. He is a skilled messenger and could very credibly run a change vs. more of the same campaign against Clinton.
Rubio is also the most broadly appealing GOP candidate and would have the best shot to close the nonwhite vote gap with the Democrats. However, we haven’t seen Rubio tested in any real way in this campaign, and his support seems to be very top down. Operatives, pundits and donors are wowed, but the voters are pretty meh on Rubio to date. This is very different from Obama, who had tremendous grassroots support from the beginning.
Other than Florida (and that is a very open question), it’s not clear what state Rubio could flip into the Republican column. Despite having the best weeks of his campaign, he is still only getting about one in eight Republican primary voters. Also, claiming that Rubio can handle Clinton because he bested Jeb Bush in a debate is a little like saying the Harlem Globetrotters can beat the Golden State Warriors because they whipped the Washington Generals.
It’s still early
Even though it feels like this campaign has been going on for centuries, it is still super early, and a lot can and will change before the Iowa caucuses.
At this point in 2007, most pundits and strategists would have ranked Obama as the least electable Democrat and the economy was chugging along slowly. A year later, Obama was President and the economy was in crisis. So take all of this with a grain of salt, but this is a snapshot of how Obama Democrats view the Republican field.