Some presidential elections resemble a parade, as eager voters flock to a candidate offering hope. Others look more like trench warfare, with two parties focused on rallying their troops and slugging to victory. The 2016 contest will be the slugging sort.
Americans are in a partisan mood, with growing numbers viewing all manner of issues—from taxes to Middle East policy—through a consistently conservative or liberal lens. An increasing proportion tell pollsters that political opponents are not just mistaken, but threaten the country’s very well-being.
In 2016, trying to change minds across party lines will be for chumps. The smart candidates will appeal to people’s guts, to drive up turnout on their own side. Record sums will be spent. Following a loosening of campaign-finance laws, total spending by candidates, parties and outside groups is expected to exceed $5 billion, more than double the estimated cost of the presidential election in 2012.
Democratic Party leaders know they will not repeat their achievement in 2012, when Barack Obama actually saw turnout among some groups, notably black voters, rise above its level in 2008. That “Obama bump” was highly unusual for a president seeking a second term. In 2016 black turnout will fall. Young voters will find it hard to feel excited about Hillary Clinton (who will be the party’s nominee unless her candidacy implodes for some reason), a fiercely controlled figure who will turn 69 before election day. The former secretary of state and First Lady will strive to replace lost Obama voters by energising her most loyal supporters, who include non-white women and women with college degrees.
Republican leaders know they must not repeat the disasters of 2012, when their party nominated an awkward technocrat, Mitt Romney, who was forced to adopt hard-right positions on such issues as immigration during a long, expensive selection contest. So the 2016 primary-election season will be short and sharp, if new rules imposed by party bigwigs work as planned. February will see four contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada—relatively small states that reward candidates skilled at working a room. The field will narrow after March 1st, “Super Tuesday”, when around a dozen states, most in the Bible-toting, gun-loving South, hold contests. Party bigwigs hope a candidate can clinch the race as early as April.
The hard-right activists who dominate Republican presidential-selection contests will not fall into line as easily as that. Grassroots conservatives and the Republican establishment disagree, profoundly, about why Mr Romney lost. Activists say he was an out-of-touch moderate elitist who was defeated when millions of disgusted conservatives stayed home. Grandees counter that Mr Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and private-equity boss, lost because he did so badly with fast-growing, Democratic-leaning voter blocs, from unmarried women to Hispanics and Asians.
The numbers are with the grandees. In 2012 Mr Romney won a higher share of the white vote than Ronald Reagan did in 1980, the year of his first presidential victory. If he had run the same race in Reagan’s America, a country in which almost nine-in-ten voters were white, he would have won a landslide. Facing the demography of 2012, he suffered a drubbing. In 2016 the electorate will be more diverse still, with 30% of votes being cast by non-whites.
Unhappily for the Republicans, the pool of activists who choose their presidential candidates does not reflect the diversity of the general electorate. Older, much whiter and more conservative than the average American, a total of just 20m Republicans will cast ballots to choose a nominee. Because they really loathe Democrats, in the end they will pick a candidate acceptable to big donors and party power-brokers—someone like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. But the process will see ferocious battles, forcing candidates to take harsh lines on everything from abortion and guns to immigration.
Two weary, battered parties will drag themselves to the finish line. The Democrats will hardly be in better shape than Republicans. It is hard to hold the White House after two terms, even when voters are in a sunny mood. And in 2016 their mood will be sour. Mrs Clinton, a policy wonk with years of experience at the top, is more impressive than she is appealing. Some demographic shifts will prove less decisive than many Democrats expect. Latino turnout will disappoint, and Latino votes will prove decisive in only one or two states.
The final result may depend on factors out of any candidate’s control. If global forces derail America’s recovery in 2016, Democrats will lose. If the economy keeps chugging along, Mrs Clinton can eke out a narrow win. She will still face a Congress dominated by her enemies: the House of Representatives will stay in Republican hands in 2016, and possibly the Senate too. At which point, President Clinton’s woes will be just beginning.
*Can you correctly forecast who will win the Republication Party nomination for president? Test your forecasting skills at the Good Judgment Project/The World in 2016 challenge, at gjopen.com/economist