If we skip over 2014, since it will “just” be House and Senate races, I think there are a few things that can be said about the coming 2016 race. On a side note regarding 2014, I think Republicans will maintain their majority in the House, though they will probably lose some seats (probably slightly more than Democrats, but not by much), and Republicans will probably pick up a Senate seat or two, though I am fairly confident Democrats will hold their majority there.
Republicans are starting off stronger in 2016 than they were when 2012 began. Obama had no need to campaign for his party’s nomination, and it’s arguable that the Republican primaries are where Romney’s run at the presidency really broke down (though I would argue he was doomed long before the Iowa Caucus).
When you have to campaign for your party’s nomination, you inevitably have some sore losers in your party who won’t support you. You have inner-party mudslinging that taints your image. You have to spend some of your money just getting to the big game, whereas an incumbent can just quietly watch from the sidelines, biding their time, watching you take cheap shot after cheap shot.
So yes, the old myth is true: an incumbent is harder to beat.
I think Republicans also have to get the nod when it comes to viable candidates. I don’t know who Republicans will nominate for 2016, but I would be willing to bet that it won’t be anyone who ran in 2012. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Mitch Daniels… there’s a lot of potential candidates who never threw their hats into the ring for 2012.
Contrast this with the Democrats, where the most likely early lead will be Joe Biden (though I don’t think he’ll get the nomination). “But what about Hillary Clinton?” Well, it’s possible. She is stepping down from her position as Secretary of State, and it certainly takes four years these days to campaign for the presidency. However, she has stated and restated that she won’t be running in 2016. I know… never trust a politician… except, I think she’s genuinely uninterested. I think it’s more likely we’ll see her run for Senate or simply retire from politics.
And at this point, I’m at a loss for what Democrats will do. I have heard silly suggestions ranging from Andrew Cuomo or Michael Bloomberg to Elizabeth Warren or Tammy Duckworth… but I don’t see that happening, at all. I like Elizabeth Warren in particular… which is sort of my first clue that she won’t be the nominee, though I suppose it’s possible she will run. I don’t think so, though.
So, Democrats are either stuck with Joe Biden, or they need to groom someone during these four years. Meanwhile, the Republicans have an impressive stable of candidates who have broad national appeal.
What we can’t know, however, is how Obama’s presidency will go. If I had to guess, I would imagine his second term will be as mediocre as his first term, which isn’t going to help Democrats.
Then again, how Republicans in the House act during the next four years will also have a strong effect on how the party is perceived. If congressional Republicans continue to cause legislative deadlock, it’s not going to bode well for their presidential candidate. Remember, many (if not most) people vote for the party, not the person, especially at the Federal level.
In fact, the entire tone of the 2016 race will likely be altered by the 2014 races, which are much too far off to predict. I mean honestly… you would have had to have been psychic to know that Tea Baggers would influence the 2010 elections, or that Republicans would be courting the rapist vote in 2012. Who knows what will be said in 2014 and 2016? Hell, I don’t even know who will be saying it, let alone what will be said.
But that doesn’t mean the entire election is a toss-up. While it’s embarrassingly early to make predictions, I think it’s clear that Republicans are in a good position for 2016.
One final note on why Republicans have an advantage in 2016: Republicans picked up a fair number of governors and state legislatures in 2012. When you have Republicans controlling a large number of states, you can expect a greater proportion of gerrymandering to go in favor of Republicans.
It’s not so much an issue of whether Republicans are “worse” about how much they gerrymander, but rather, just that they control so many states. Many of these states are low-population and therefore over-represented in both the House and the Senate. Even in 2012, it was not difficult for Republicans to maintain more seats in the House, despite getting less total votes for House members.
If Democrats want to regain the House, it will be crucial that they become active at the state level. It won’t be enough to simply break Republican majorities in most of these states; Democrats would need to gain control enough to redraw the districts in their favor. I don’t think Democrats have the will to do this in the places where it needs to happen. It would take some sort of strange, spontaneous migration from urban coastal centers to the less populated, inland states.
Basically, what I’m saying is… the best hope Democrats have is for global warming to devastate the coasts and cause more liberal citizens to move to the Midwest and Mountain states. I don’t think that will happen in four years. The oceans are rising… but not that fast. It’s appropriate, then, that progress will probably continue to move at a glacial pace… even if the glaciers won’t be here by the time progress arrives.