2012 Will Be a Very Different Election
This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on April 19, 2010.
For those Democrats looking for a little political sunshine on the horizon, I wrote an essay published by Salon over the weekend that examined reasons for Democratic optimism and Republican caution that will emerge once the midterm elections are over.
I made three basic points: (1) the very turnout patterns that will help Republicans in 2010 will likely be reversed in 2012, with the current GOP focus on appealing to older white voters becoming a handicap rather than an advantage; (2) for all the talk of "fresh faces" emerging from the midterms, it is extremely unlikely that any of them will emerge quickly enough to run for president as Republicans in 2012; and (3) the existing Republican presidential field is at least as weak as the 2008 field, and could produce a weak nominee. That's all totally aside from the facts that the economy could improve by 2012, that the president remains relatively popular, and that Republicans may be unable to offer a credible alternative agenda for the country.
While I was by no means making any predictions for 2012, I did provoke a cranky response from RealClearPolitics' Jay Cost, who fired back a post suggesting I didn't much know what I was talking about. Why? Because, well, young voters might trend Republican (since they did back in the 1980s), Republicans might amass enough "angry white voters" to overwhelm the rest of the electorate in 2012, and Democrats have nominated "dark horses" before so it's ludicrous for any Democrats to suggest Republicans can't do the same in 2012.
Lordy, lordy, so much heat in response to a piece mainly suggesting that Republicans should try to curb their enthusiasm--a suggestion that Cost himself has often made to those in both parties who see every positive development as augering a divinely dictated permanent majority. Yes, Jay is right, anything's possible. Young voters may do a 180-degree turn in their political attitudes between 2008 and 2012, but it's unlikely. Yes, it is always possible to amass a large enough lead in one demographic category to win any given election, but it's doesn't happen often, and it's a particularly perilous strategy when that category is gradually shrinking as an element of the electorate. And no, I don't know, just as he doesn't know, who the Republican nominee for president is going to be in 2012.
But Jay doesn't deny my most basic point that the well-known age disparties in midterm versus presidential turnout happen, at this moment in political history, to be helping Republicans disproportionately in 2010, and could accordingly disappear as an advantage, and even become a disadvantage, in 2012. Republicans like Jay need to think about that, and not just complain that the observation isn't a scientific prediction.
As for the presidential field, I was actually making two separate points that Cost seems to conflate: the first is that the loose talk about "fresh faces" emerging from the current cycle and brushing aside the early GOP field is a dangerous delusion; it rarely if ever happens, and didn't happen in the four elections Jay cites as counter-examples. He's on stronger ground suggesting that "dark horses" (not "fresh faces") could emerge, but doesn't deal with any of the specific problems I mention about the currently available "dark horses," other than to mock them. And yes, it's possible that Pawlenty's Sam's Club Republican bit will finally catch on. Maybe insider enthusiasm for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will become communicable to actual voters outside Indiana. Perhaps Rick Perry and Jim DeMint aren't as crazy-sounding to swing voters as they sound to Democrats. But if I were a Republican, I would be a mite more worried than Cost seems to be about my weak presidential field, and a mite less confident that weak fields somehow magically produce strong "dark horses."
The bottom line is that the natural GOP tendency to extrapolate a good, or even very good 2010 to a good 2012 misses some pretty basic problems that could plague today's high-riding party before too long. And if you don't believe me, ask former President Bob Dole.