The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Democrats vs. Republicans in 2014 and 2016

November 19, 2013

The fate of the Democratic and Republican Parties in the 2014 and 2016 US elections will be determined largely by how the economy performs over the next few years and whether the kinks in Obamacare can be worked out. Another major factor, notes Paul Saunders, will be whether Republicans can stop their infighting and appeal to a broader popular base. Only the passage of time will reveal how these factors will shape election outcomes and to whose benefit .

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The second half of 2013 has been a turbulent period in American politics. From revelations of National Security Agency surveillance to a political crisis over the debt ceiling and ongoing recriminations over the implementation of President Barack Obama’s healthcare—now widely known as “Obamacare”—it has been a time of near-constant fighting. It has also been a time of constant polling, evaluations, and predictions about the fates of Democrats and Republicans in the 2014 and 2016 elections. Notwithstanding many confident pronouncements, it is far from clear which party may benefit the most from the country’s current disputes.

© LaDawna Howard
© LaDawna Howard

Following the 2012 election, conventional wisdom suggested that demographic changes in the American population, divisions in the Republican Party, and weak Republican candidates would produce a significant victory for Democrats. According to this view, Republicans alienated independent and minority voters with extreme rhetoric, and divisions inside the Republican Party weakened candidates who found it difficult to win enthusiastic support even among their own voters. This facilitated President Obama’s reelection and Democratic gains in the Senate (a stronger majority) and the House of Representatives (a larger minority).

Those holding this view also regard independents as blaming the Republicans for the recent government shutdown and business-friendly Republicans as blaming the party’s Tea Party faction for reckless political tactics that were doomed to fail. As a result, the Republican Party might destroy itself in nasty political infighting.

And even if it does not, Republicans will be so preoccupied with winning primary elections that they will weaken their general election prospects by taking positions that are popular with the party’s activist base but unpopular in the wider electorate. They cite the recent victory of weak Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s November gubernatorial election—partly due to a third-party candidate who won significant support among disaffected Republicans—as evidence.

Problems with Obamacare

Alternatively, some claim, Republicans may be divided, but Obamacare remains unpopular and the administration’s poor execution of the policy—including massive problems with the website designed to allow Americans to learn about new health insurance options and buy coverage—has provided the GOP with a major opportunity by making the Obama administration look incompetent. At the same time, from this point-of-view, Mr. Obama’s unwise promise that Americans who like their existing health care coverage would be able to keep it, which has proven false, has seriously damaged the president’s credibility and could undermine his ability to accomplish anything of importance during the remainder of his term.

More immediately, if the administration does not quickly correct problems with the Obamacare website and the loss of health insurance by people holding certain individual-market insurance plans, those advancing this view argue that congressional Democrats may begin to abandon President Obama by supporting legislative fixes that could gut the healthcare law through some combination of delayed implementation and relaxed requirements.

Since Obamacare was already built upon a complicated and delicate balance that necessitates forcing everyone to buy insurance that meets minimum coverage levels in order to provide a sufficiently large risk pool to provide reasonable premiums for those without any coverage (some of whom are quite sick), any significant changes could collapse the whole structure—and take the president’s principal accomplishment with it.

For many, choosing between these two outlooks is a matter of ideology rather than analysis—especially because analysis alone does not provide a clear choice. The central reason for this is that the 2014 elections are still a year away and, accordingly, a great deal can happen in American politics before voters have the opportunity to express their will. Events could thrust new issues to the top of the public agenda or, conversely, American voters could simply forget or stop caring about the government shutdown, the healthcare website, or both (however much Democrats will remind the public about the former, even as Republicans call attention to the latter).

Whither the US Economy

Looking ahead, three interrelated factors seem likely to have a significant impact on the battles between Republicans and Democrats in 2014 and 2016. The first, of course, is the state of the economy. Will economic growth increase or slow? Will unemployment go down or up? This is perhaps the paramount concern for voters, not only in the United States but also in most other democratic nations. (And it is a key component of regime legitimacy in undemocratic ones.) Low growth that fails to reduce unemployment could be quite damaging to the Democrats and could give the administration’s stumbles with Obamacare continuing relevance by reinforcing the narrative of incompetence.

The second is the degree to which healthcare reform actually works over time. Success in the minds of most Americans—including independent and Republican voters—can redefine current problems as “bumps in the road” rather than a road to nowhere. The administration and Congressional Democrats will have two chances to redefine how Americans think about Obamacare, during the 2014 and 2016 campaigns. Even if the administration does not get much credit in the mid-term elections, more favorable attitudes in 2015–16 could help Mr. Obama finish his second term on a high note and strengthen his hand in campaigning in the presidential race and key Congressional battles. But if the legislation is gutted and the president loses a central plank in his legacy, Democrats may run from him.

The third factor is whether the current tensions in the Republican Party are short-term and transitory or long-term and fundamental. Will 2014 primaries evolve into a battle between moderate candidates supported by local chambers of commerce and Tea Party candidates supported by committed grassroots groups? Or, sensing Mr. Obama’s vulnerability, will Republicans unite under the banner of opposition to Obamacare in a way that they were unable to this fall—avoiding wider changes to the GOP in the light of voter frustration with the president’s unfulfilled promises?

Only the passage of time will reveal how these factors will shape election outcomes and to whose benefit—if anyone’s. Indeed, as the two elections approach, there is one final possibility to consider: an array of problems that provide no net benefit to either side, with neither the economy nor healthcare really working but the GOP still divided over priorities and tactics. This may be the most problematic outcome for Americans: two weakened parties slugging it out for the right to manage a stagnant economy, with angry and even disgusted voters forced to choose between candidates that few like or respect.

    • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest / President, Energy Innovation Reform Project
    • Paul J. Saunders
    • Paul J. Saunders

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