The story of where American voters are today, in terms of partisan split, is the same as it was heading into the 2000 presidential election.
We are a country split down the middle, leaning slightly Democrat.
Much has happened since that 2000 presidential race between Democrat Al Gore, a sitting vice president, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican. But back then, no one was really paying attention to the race.
That feels ridiculous today, given our over-wired culture’s obsession with all things political. Yet, remember: No major events, such as the 9/11 terror attacks or a collapsing economy, drove 2000’s voters. No larger-than-life personality chewed up 2000’s scenery or the storyline of that election cycle. So both parties turned out their respective bases and, at the end of the day, we had a tie reflecting our normal partisan split.
Since then, Bush took the Republican Party way up and also took it way down.
And Barack Obama appears to be replicating that pattern. Both the 2010 midterms (historic losses of U.S. House and state legislative seats for Democrats) and the 2012 presidential election (Obama is the first to win re-election with fewer votes than in his first victory) show signs of putting Democrats in the same fractured place that Republicans were in post-Bush.
"Both parties have problems," says James Campbell, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Buffalo. "The Democrats have become too emboldened and the Republicans are too internally divided."
Campbell says most of the Republicans’ divisions concern strategy (stand firm vs. compromise) more than policy: "But it will take some leadership to convince conservative-movement Republicans that all compromises are not sellouts by RINOs" — Republicans in name only — "and to convince mainstream Republicans that they need to drive a hard bargain to make a compromise worthwhile. And then they actually need to explain the compromise."
Immigration reform is a good example of this. If a deal is going to be cut, it has to be a deal that reasonable conservatives can agree on, and one that is explained to conservatives who might be inclined to remain policy purists.
Democrats have many problems stemming from their overreach between 2009 and 2010 and their misinterpretation of Obama’s 2012 election, according to Campbell.
Democrats gained big majorities after a 2006 congressional scandal cost Republicans seats; then, Wall Street’s 2008 meltdown pushed them into big congressional majorities plus the White House. Those opportunities were too good to pass up, leading to ObamaCare.
Democrats were rebuked in 2010 but survived in 2012 because of Obama’s incumbency advantage, a lackluster Republican campaign and seats frittered away by tea-party candidates in 2010 and 2012.
"The position of the Democrats is more happenstance than they’d like to think, and they are setting themselves up for a fall in 2014 and 2016 when they won’t have the Obama incumbency advantage, can’t count on Republicans nominating weak candidates, and voters may well have tired of them after eight years of Obama," says Campbell.
Bush and Obama split the country in their elections, swinging our 50/50 split in their respective favors. But the question in the mind of Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia political numbers-cruncher, is whether the Obama voting bloc is growing too quickly for the Bush bloc to catch up by 2016.
"My guess is that the fundamentals will favor the Republican candidate then, if only because historically it’s hard (for a party) to win a third term in the White House," he says.
For now, Kondik says, both parties continue to sort out their ideological lines.
He is waiting to see how Democrats fare in the 2014 House and Senate races.
"The red-state senators and House districts who survive will use their power of incumbency to separate themselves from the president," he says, "but the truth is that if Obama is woefully unpopular, they will be the first ones to fall in the midterm if it develops into a wave."
If Republicans win the majority in the Senate and keep a respectable majority in the House, with Obama in the White House, we are right back where we started in 2000 as we head into the 2016 presidential election.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]