Monday, June 8, 2015

The Shrinking Center and Why It Matters in 2016

You hear it all the time. One third of the country always votes Republican, one third always votes Democrat and the remaining third is up for grabs. Yours truly has said it more times than he cares to admit. The inference couldn't be clearer. The Center ends up deciding elections. And while there may be some truth to that, it's becoming painfully apparent that the Center, as we know it, isn't as large as it used to be. As the country becomes more and more polarized, the percentage of likely voters "up for grabs" is shrinking. It wouldn't surprise me if it comprises less than 10 percent of the total electorate.

A close look at the last four elections reveals some rather startling statistics. Despite losing the Center in all of them, Democrats managed a split. In the two elections they won, their base was the primary reason. In the two elections they lost, their base was MIA. Remember Mitt Romney's ill-fated 2012 campaign? The prevailing sentiment was that the reason he lost was his failure to pivot to the center. Well, as we now know, he won the Center. He lost because Barack Obama was able to get his base out to the polls. He ended up winning by 5 million votes.

The conclusion was as obvious as the nose on your face. When the Democratic base showed up, Democrats won; when it stayed home, the GOP won. The Center was a non factor. And if history is any indicator, 2016 won't be any different. Want proof? Look no further than Hillary Clinton's campaign. Since declaring, she has staked out every conceivable progressive position. Be it minimum wage, gay rights, voting rights, women's rights, immigration reform, she is doing her best to appease the left wing of her party.

Some would say she is doing this primarily because she is being pushed by Elizabeth Warren (who isn't running) and Bernie Sanders (who is). There is certainly some truth to this. If you'll recall, back in '08, Obama was the fresh, young face that progressives flocked to and Hillary balked at the suggestion that she needed to move to the left in order to secure the nomination. Instead, she ran towards the center and Obama beat her.

Know this about the Clintons: they are political animals. They adapt and survive. If anything, the country has moved further to the left over the last eight years. Hillary, like her husband, can read a road map. And right now that road map is most definitely charting a course due left. She also knows how to interpret voter demographics. The Democratic Party is a diverse and multi-cultural party that is growing. By contrast, the Republican Party is, as Howard Fineman put it, a monochrome party that is almost exclusively white and shrinking. Hillary would be a fool to court a Center that for all intents and purposes is non-extistant and politically irrelevant.

The 2016 election will come down to this. If Hillary Clinton can hold onto the Obama coalition - or at least most of it - she will win. If she can't, she will lose. It will not matter one iota how many moderates she woos or how inclusive her positions become. It comes down to sheer numbers. The Democrats have a huge electoral advantage over the GOP.  Everybody knows this. But, as we saw all too clearly in 2010 and 2014, having an advantage in numbers only means something if they're counted as votes.

Hillary must not make the same mistake her party made in those two elections. She must reject the provincial wisdom of the pundits and Blue Dogs like Joe Manchin who want her to run a centrist campaign. She must do just the opposite. Go left. In fact, go hard left. Force the Republicans to defend their myopic, sexist, homophobic, 19th century views. Let's talk about our crumbling infrastructure, poverty, income inequality, the dwindling middle class and the growing rift between the haves and the have-nots.

Will she win the hearts and minds of the Center? Probably not. She will, however, give her base one helluva reason not to sit this one out. And that's all that counts. The truth is Hillary's base is bigger than Jeb's or Rand's or whomever the GOP nominee will be.

In the end, it's her election to lose.

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