Election 2016: why today's confident predictions could look silly in two years

Political history favors Republicans. Demographic change favors Democrats. But the economy and election-shaping surprises – such as the Iranian hostage crisis or Hurricane Katrina – could have more to do with the outcome in 2016.

Jim Cole/AP
Possible 2016 Republican presidentyial contender, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, shakes hands with marines following a US Marine Corps 239th birthday luncheon on Nov. 10, 2014 in Manchester, N.H. Perry said his two-day tour of New Hampshire is preparation for a second presidential bid, but he won't make a final decision on that until at least May.

Thanks to a Senate runoff in Louisiana and some long vote counts here and there, the 2014 campaign is not quite over. But speculation about the 2016 campaign has already started. It’s a good time to separate out the few things we know about that election from the many things we don’t know.

The one certainty is that the 2016 campaign will take place in the eighth year of a Democratic administration. When a party has held the presidency for at least eight years, political scientist Alan Abramowitz has shown, voters start to think that it is time to give the other party a chance. Since 1948, incumbent parties in their first term have won seven times and lost only once (1980). But after two or more consecutive terms, they have lost seven times and won twice (1948 and 1988).

The overall pattern should give Republicans some reason for hope. But the 1948 and 1988 results mean that Democrats should not despair.

And the Democrats have other things going for them. Demographic changes, especially the diminishing dominance of the white vote, may work to their advantage. Except for the Johnson landslide of 1964, Republicans won the white vote in every presidential election between 1952 and 2012. But because of the growth of the Hispanic and Asian populations, as well as increased turnout among African Americans, the white share of the electorate has been shrinking.

Change in the electorate helped Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and will probably help the Democratic nominee in 2016. It does not, however, ensure victory. Such trends move slowly and are subject to year-to-year fluctuation. There is no guarantee that the Democratic candidate will be able to inspire the same record-high African American turnout as President Obama. Even if the Asian and Hispanic electorates keep growing, they might not always vote for Democrats as heavily as in the past. During the 2014 midterm, Republicans made inroads among Hispanics and got half of the Asian vote.

Usually, the most powerful influence on elections is the state of the economy. If average voters feel more money in their pockets, then the incumbent party should do well. If they are getting worse off, then they will throw the bums out. In this year’s election, gross domestic product was rising and unemployment was falling, but stagnant wages contributed to the sense that the economy was still in the doldrums.

So what kind of economy will voters see in 2016?  Maybe prosperity lurks just around the corner. Maybe the sluggish expansion will curdle into a toxic recession. Nobody can say. Not even the most sophisticated economic models can reliably forecast the global economy two years in advance.

The economy is what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would call a “known unknown.” That is, we can be pretty sure of which economic statistics will matter, but we don’t yet know what their values will be.Then there are the “unknown unknowns” – historic, election-shaping surprises. At this point in the 1980 election cycle, Democrats had just gotten out of the 1978 midterm with barely a scratch, and Jimmy Carter had a double-digit lead over Ronald Reagan. The following year brought an oil shortage, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Exactly a decade ago, George W. Bush was basking in his 2004 reelection, and many liberal pundits were worried that the GOP had built an unbreakable lock on power. In 2005 came Hurricane Katrina and chaos in Iraq.

 The outcome of the 2016 election will hinge on numbers that we cannot yet foretell and events that we cannot anticipate. So the only thing we know for sure is that a lot of today’s confident predictions will look silly in two years.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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