ATLANTA — Republicans crowed in 2004 that freshly re-elected President George W. Bush had established a "permanent governing majority" for the GOP. Eight years later, Democrats were touting the enduring power of the "Obama coalition" to keep their party in the White House.
But Democrats couldn't sustain that coalition for this year's midterm elections, leading to Republican gains in Congress, governorships and state legislatures nationwide.
"The notion of demographics as destiny is overblown," said Republican pollster and media strategist Wes Anderson. "Just like (Bush aide Karl) Rove was wrong with that 'permanent majority' talk, Democrats have to remember that the pendulum is always swinging."
So how will it swing in 2016? Is the path to 270 electoral votes so fixed that one side just can't win? Will President Barack Obama's limited popularity be a burden for the Democratic nominee in the next race for the White House? Or will an increasingly diverse electorate pick a Democrat for a third consecutive presidential election for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman won five straight elections from 1932 to 1948?
Despite Democrats' midterm shellacking and talk of a "depressed" liberal base, many in the party still like their starting position for 2016. Ruy Teixiera, a Democratic demographer, points to a group of states worth 242 electoral votes that the Democratic presidential nominee has won in every election since 1992. Hold them all, and the party is just 28 votes shy of the majority needed to win the White House next time.
Obama twice compiled at least 332 electoral votes by adding wins in almost every competitive state. He posted double-digit wins among women, huge margins among voters younger than 30 and historically high marks among blacks and Latinos.
As non-white voters continue to grow as a share of the electorate, a Democratic nominee who roughly holds onto Obama's 2012 level of support across all demographic groups would win the national popular vote by about 6 percentage points and coast to victory in the Electoral College, Teixeira estimates.
"Could a Republican win? Sure," Teixeira said. "But they have to have a lot of different things happen."
What if the GOP is able to continue its gains among non-white voters? Obama, after all, lost ground in 2012 among most demographic measures, compared to his 2008 performance. Those slides helped make him the first president since World War II to win re-election with a lower popular vote total than he got in his initial victory.
A GOP nominee such as the Spanish-speaking Jeb Bush, former Florida governor, could make a difference. He is a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform who has the potential to capture significantly more than the 27 percent of the Latino vote that Mitt Romney claimed in 2012. Meanwhile, Republicans hope African-Americans make up a smaller share of the electorate with Obama no longer atop the ballot.
"We're not talking about winning those groups, but these elections are fought on the margins, so improvements here and there can make a difference," Anderson said.
Republicans acknowledge that demographic shifts make it more difficult than in years past for the GOP nominee to depend mostly on white voters, who cast 87 percent of presidential ballots in 1992 and just 72 percent in 2012.
At the same time, Democrats have watched white voters, particularly those without a college degree, move away from the party during Obama's presidency — and not just in the conservative South. Obama lost this group by about 26 points in 2012, according to exit polls and other analyses. By this November, his Gallup approval rating among the group stood at 27 percent.
Extending that trend into 2016 could push Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire into the GOP column. Whites also could tip Florida, Virginia and Colorado, although non-white voters in those states hold more influence than in the Midwest and Northeast. Those seven states, plus all those won by Romney in 2012, would give the GOP a winning total of 295 electoral votes.
It should be noted that the path to 270 requires any potential GOP president to win Florida, with its 29 electoral votes. And while it's mathematically possible for a Republican to win without Ohio's 18 electoral votes, no GOP nominee has ever done so, and Republican strategists widely acknowledge the state as essential.
Of course, further analysis of the raw numbers alone ignores the potential of the candidates themselves to shape the election — not to mention dramatic changes in the economy, national security events or other developments that fall outside the control of any candidate.
"Presidential elections don't take place in a vacuum," GOP strategist Anderson said. "It's an adversarial system in which their side has a face and our side has a face, and everything flows from that."
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