Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush's 1980 primary contest should be studied in regards to 2016.

Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush's 1980 primary contest should be studied in regards to 2016. AP file photo

Playing the Name Game for 2016

The key question is not who will run, but what the intrinsic value of Democratic and Republican nominations will be.

The most popular parlor game in Washington and among political aficionados across America at the moment is pondering who will run for president in 2016, who will be the finalists for each nomination, and who will ultimately win on Nov. 8.

It's always a fun game to play, with an infinite number of factors to be weighed and no one knowing the actual outcome for a very long time. But as much fun as it is, this hobby tends to obscure something more important: the fundamentals. What will the inherent value of a Democratic nomination be in 2016? And what is the intrinsic value of the Republican nomination?

We know from modern history that voters tend to opt for change after one party holds the White House for two full terms. Putting aside the Roosevelt-Truman era—which for political purposes was back when dinosaurs roamed—voters have opted to keep a party in the presidency for 12 years only once. In 1988, after President Reagan's second term, his vice president, George H.W. Bush, moved from Massachusetts Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reagan's approval rating had been running in the low fifties during the fall 1988 campaign. It dipped down to 51 percent in the last Gallup Poll before Election Day, having mostly recovered from his post-1986 midterm-election plunge following the disclosure of the Iran-Contra scandal. Shortly after Bush's 1988 win, Reagan's approval rating shot up again to near previous high levels, and he left office with a 63 percent Gallup approval rating (Reagan's all-time high was 68 percent, which he reached twice during his eight years in office).

The conclusion to be drawn here is that when a two-term president has an approval rating of 50 percent or higher, the historic pattern shatters; below that threshold, however, eight years has generally been the limit of a party's White House occupancy since World War II. It is worth noting here that Obama's weekly job-approval ratings have been in the 40-to-44-percent range since October. This doesn't mean that an outgoing president with approval numbers below 50 percent couldn't be succeeded by a member of his own party, but the process does seem to become much more problematic.

With the historic record in mind, the first relevant question will thus be: What is the intrinsic value of the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016? This will likely be determined by where President Obama's job-approval ratings are and how people will be feeling then about his—and the Democratic Party's—signature legislative achievement during his presidency, the Affordable Care Act. Taken together, these and potentially other factors will help determine the extent to which voters are open to giving Democrats a third consecutive presidential term, regardless of who the nominee might be. If voters are really down on the Democratic Party in 2016, that would likely create something of an undertow for any nominee, whether that is Hillary Clinton or someone else.

The second question I find myself asking is: What will the Republican nomination be worth? The inherent value of the GOP nomination will be determined by such factors as the extent to which Republicans will have been able to chip away at their problems with minority, young, women, and moderate voters. It will also be affected by whether Republicans will have cast away some of their nearly self-destructive tendencies exhibited in certain recent U.S. Senate nominations, and at several points during the 2012 GOP presidential-nomination contest.

If Republicans repeat some of their dismal performances from this past White House contest—in which Mitt Romney won just 6 percent of the African-American vote, 26 percent of the Asian vote, and 27 percent of the Latino vote (the percentages of the GOP vote for Congress were almost identical)—it will be impossible for the party to take advantage of the historical pattern that usually exists at the end of two terms. Romney won 59 percent of the white vote and yet still lost the election by just under 4 percentage points. There are no longer enough white voters to compensate for Republicans getting buried among minorities.

The same goes for age. Things could be very bleak for the GOP in 2016 if the nominee is getting only 36 percent of the vote of those ages 18 to 24, 38 percent of those 25 to 29, and 42 percent of those between 30 and 39 (all of those percentages are lower than what Obama received among any of the three older age cohorts in the exit poll). Also, keep in mind that presidential-year turnouts are historically more friendly to Democrats, just as midterm years are more favorable to the GOP.

To that point, given that Democrats usually win 90 percent of those voters who identify with the Democratic Party, just as Republicans get 90 percent of those who personally align themselves with Republicans, the gap between the proportions that identify with each party is critical. Romney carried the independent vote by 5 points, yet lost the general election by almost 4 points. Similarly, Ken Cuccinelli, in last year's Virginia gubernatorial contest, won the independent vote by 9 points, but lost overall by just under 3 points. To the extent that Republicans fall behind in party identification, winning independents may not be enough. The value of the GOP nomination will be determined by how the party is perceived two years from now. The GOP cannot be seen as a party of, by, and for older white men.

So have fun with the "Who runs? Who is nominated?" game, but don't forget the fundamentals. They matter.