While the media fixates on supposed Republican disarray—the Washington Post recently declared breathlessly that the GOP is “on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party”—Republicans are actually quietly wielding (and consolidating) more political power than either party has held in decades. Democrats currently hold the presidency, and are exercising its powers energetically. But outside of the White House, as the liberal stalwart Matt Yglesias notes in a perceptive piece for Vox, the Democratic Party’s position is extraordinarily weak:
The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. […]
Winning a presidential election would give Republicans the overwhelming preponderance of political power in the United States — a level of dominance not achieved since the Democrats during the Great Depression, but with a much more ideologically coherent coalition.
It’s worth pausing to take stock of where, in the grand scheme of things, the two parties stand as 2016 approaches. If a Republican candidate wins in 2016, the GOP is likely, though not certain, to retain the Senate as well. (The GOP has a virtual lock on the House for at least the next few cycles). This would give the Republicans unified control of the federal government (not to mention a continued conservative majority on the Supreme Court) to top off their state-level dominance. And even if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2016, the Republican Party will still retain one, if not two houses of Congress, as well as its preponderance of power in state capitals. In other words, we are entering what looks likely to be a tight 2016 presidential election in a political context where one party—the Democrats—has vastly more to lose. It’s striking how quickly the notion of an “emerging Democratic majority” has vanished into thin air.
What happened, exactly? Many liberal commentators attribute the party’s woes largely to demography. As Yglesias writes, “the natural distribution of population in the United States tends to lead the average House district to be more GOP-friendly than the overall population.” Thomas Edsall has similarly argued that “the inefficient distribution of Democratic voters” is a significant factor in the party’s recent losses at the state and Congressional levels. This analysis is accurate—current Democratic voters (minorities, young people, single women) are packed tightly into urban areas, while Republican voters (white people, married people, people born before 1980) are more geographically spread out—but it only gets us so far. After all, there is no rule that the Democrats can only compete for their current voters. The Democrats’ New Deal coalition, and Bill Clintons’ Third Way coalition after it, was able to win House seats and state legislative seats outside of urban liberal strongholds. This is in part because the old-time Democrats were a broader, more moderate, and more flexible party, while Democrats around the country are today uniting around a more stridently liberal agenda (war on women! $15 minimum wage! gun control!) that has much less appeal outside of major cities.
As we’ve seen in 2008 and 2012, this can be a powerful tactic in presidential years. But it has also contributed to the hollowing out of the party at all levels of government outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If the party loses the White House 2016, it will have almost nothing left, and the steep risks of doubling down on the Obama coalition will be laid bare.