The other week RCP analysts David Byler and Sean Trende put out an updated version of their party strength index. The index assesses the relative strength of the parties in the US on five scales of 0-100 and an overall scale of 0-500 using five metrics; presidential performance, House performance, Senate performance, gubernatorial performance and state legislative performance.
Byler’s and Trende’s model goes down the line of US elections and finds Democrats and Republicans have had highs and lows. Currently, contrary to popular opinion stating doom and gloom for the GOP because they cannot win the White House, the GOP is incredibly strong at both the state and federal level.
The GOP’s strength in the model rose in 2010, dropped in 2012 and bumped up in 2014. The GOP’s 2014 haul of 54 Senate seats is its second best showing since 1928 in the chamber. Likewise, their 247 House seats is also their second best showing since 1928.
In the state’s the GOP dominance is clear. The GOP’s dominance of 31 gubernatorial mansions is the third highest for the party in the Post-War era. The party’s showing in state legislatures is the highest since 1920 and the third-highest since the end of Reconstruction.
Overall, the model gives the GOP a strength of 33.8. The party was not this strong since 1928 and according to the index the only time they have been above 15 since the end of WWII. In short, the GOP brand is strong in the states.
Byler and Trende further analyze three possible outcomes for the GOP in 2016; a good year, a so-so year and a bad year. A good year would build on the GOP gains at the state level and net them the White House, a so-so year could go either way and a bad year would drop their numbers across the board.
Again, this flies in the face of the idea the GOP is a weak party. Honestly, most of this belief is based on broad assumptions about voting behavior and demographics. If anything 2014 should have worked as a wake up call to those assumers.
For one, the idea demographic voting patterns are locked into place is misguided of late. If exit polls are any guide the GOP made gains with Latinos and Asians in 2014. They also made significant gains with swing, blue-collar whites who lean Democratic in Presidential years.
Second, such an assumption assumes a static political environment. But, every political observer knows this is never the case. Parties adapt over time as do individual candidates. Take the Colorado Senate race for example. Republicans, having been hammered over the “War on Women” campaign theme of Democrats in 2012 did not want to fight over cultural issues in blue leaning Colorado.
The party’s choice, then Congressman Corey Gardner, had a history of supporting socially conservative causes including “Personhood Amendments.” But this time around Gardner pivoted and said he was not in favor of the Amendment but was still pro-life. Instead of campaigning on social issues Gardner deftly shifted to the issue of the economy, the economy, the economy. It helped his opponent, then Senator Mark Udall, overplayed the “War on Women” card (Mark Uterus).
This Presidential go-around we are seeing much the same from the top-tier and even low-tier candidates. GOP candidates are focusing much more on the economy than social issues. And while the issues of religious liberty (Indiana, Arkansas) and abortion restrictions are popping up the candidates are largely avoiding such issues. However, culture war candidates such as Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz cannot seem to completely avoid such issues.
None of this is to indicate the GOP is sure to win the White House in 2016. The House and Senate map by default also dictate the GOP is sure to lose seats in the Senate and House. The GOP is defending 24 seats in the Senate compared to 9 for Democrats including many Obama states (IA, WI, FL, PA, IL, NC). Over 20 Republican members of the House also sit in Obama districts indicating at least some of these seats are likely to flip as they return to their partisan origins.
But even so the GOP would still be in a strong position. Byler has written how the gubernatorial map gives the GOP a firewall at the state level and redistricting has left many GOP majorities in the states largely safe (as evidenced by the GOP maintaining legislative majorities in Obama states 2012). Democrats would only have a chance to really eat into this strength in 2018. Meanwhile, gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and West Virginia and legislative elections in Virginia this year give the GOP a chance to increase their strength pre-2016.
In short, the state of the GOP is strong. Republicans would be wise to try and build on this strength and Democrats would be wise not to ignore it.