The 2016 Republican presidential field is shaping up into a legendary free-for-all, with polls showing the race wide open and more candidates expressing interest by the day. Will it be Jeb Bush who consolidates establishment support? Can Rand Paul or Ted Cruz break through with a powerful grassroots coalition? Could Scott Walker thread the needle between both sides? What about Marco Rubio?
And then there’s the Democratic side. Will it be Hillary Clinton who prevails? Or will – actually, you know what, it will probably just be Hillary Clinton.
While the former secretary of state hasn’t even said whether she’ll seek the party’s nomination, her overwhelming dominance in polls, organization and endorsements raises the question of whether the Democratic vacuum might drag the Republican primary into its orbit – and even carry over into the general election.
It’s a scenario that has veteran operatives from both parties talking in early primary and caucus states, where a Clinton coronation could prompt some less partisan voters to skip the Democratic contest and participate in the more competitive Republican race.
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“If Hillary Clinton is viewed as having the Democratic caucus in the bag, Republicans will be vying for independents and other persuadable voters,” Jeff Patch, a Republican strategist in Iowa and former state GOP spokesman, told msnbc.
“It’s pretty typical if you don’t have a heavily contested election that independents would be more interested in voting in a contested election,” said Kathy Sullivan, the former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
Politicos for the most part see true blue Democrats leaping to the Republican side as an unlikely scenario, but the large, varied and poorly understood group of undeclared and independent voters are another story. In the right circumstances, a surge in participation could swing the race to the candidate who courts them hardest.
The imbalance between the two parties would hardly be a first. After all, it was just four years ago that a crowded Republican field hogged the spotlight while President Obama went uncontested for re-election.
Republicans were hoping for a surge of interest and turnout in early states versus 2008, when the prolonged Democratic primary ended up boosting that party’s registration in key states and strengthening Obama, the eventual nominee. The GOP surge didn’t materialize in most cases, but with one key exception: Turnout did go up in states where independents could vote or easily switch their party registration on the day of the race, suggesting the lack of Democratic competition may have brought some crossover votes with it.
These include the critical contests of Iowa, where voters can change party registration at the caucus site on the day of the election; New Hampshire, where undeclared voters can vote in either party’s primary; and South Carolina, which has a fully open primary. In that state, 25% of GOP primary voters described themselves as independents in 2012 exit polls, up from 18% in 2008. In New Hampshire, the number jumped from 34% in 2008 to 47% in 2012.
Political analysts sometimes sneer at the notion of true “independents,” saying many behave like partisans or are on the fringes of electoral politics and hard to reach. In 2012, a significant chunk of tea party conservatives traded in their “R” for an “I,” which lulled Mitt Romney supporters into the false belief that their candidate’s lead with independents showed he was winning swing voters.
But that doesn’t mean voters outside the traditional party bases aren’t relevant, especially in a low turnout caucus or primary where even a small number of surprise votes can swing the outcome. In Iowa, a record 122,000 people showed up to vote in the 2012 Republican caucuses – but they were only about 19% of registered GOP voters.
“It’s a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy,” Ann Selzer, the pollster behind the famed Des Moines Register survey, said. “If candidates go in thinking the only way to win the caucuses is to turn out Christian conservatives, than that’s how they campaign and that’s who shows up.”
That’s what happened in Iowa in 2008 and 2012, when Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum four years later rode social conservative support to victory. On the Democratic side, however, Obama toppled Clinton in 2008 in Iowa thanks to an intense organizing effort that enlisted thousands of new caucus-goers, including independents. The then-Illinois senator won that group in the caucuses by an 18 point margin over second-place finisher John Edwards. It’s possible that in 2016, the right candidate could accomplish something similar on the GOP side.
One Republican candidate in particular is building their campaign hopes around this idea: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. “I think Rand Paul has an early edge in trying to expand the Republican electorate,” Patch, the former Iowa GOP spokesman, said.
The Kentucky senator’s father, former Congressman Ron Paul, finished a strong third in Iowa’s 2012 caucuses while winning 43% of independents, and a distant second in libertarian-heavy New Hampshire while also leading the field with independents at 31%. The younger Paul has spent the last four years pitching the GOP on attracting younger voters and minorities, even if they’re in the other party’s camp, by promoting causes like sentencing reform and protection from federal surveillance.
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Doug Stafford, a senior Paul adviser, told msnbc Paul is “certainly well positioned to reach out to Independents and Democrats, whether that is in a primary or a general election,” in addition to Republicans.
Paul “seems to cross party lines, particularly with younger voters,” Stephen Duprey, the former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP, told msnbc.
But while Paul has been most explicit about appealing outside the Republican box, he’s not the only candidate who could benefit from an inflated independent vote if they play their cards right. Duprey noted that centrist Republicans have performed well in New Hampshire by targeting independents, who made up close to half of GOP primary voters in 2012.
The most famous example is John McCain, who romped to an upset victory in the Granite State over George W. Bush in 2000 thanks in part to a staggering 41-point lead with independents. They played a big role in McCain’s crucial 2008 South Carolina primary win as well in which he narrowly defeated Mike Huckabee in part by winning independents by a 17-point margin. Perhaps someone like Jeb Bush could make a similar play to offset conservatives upset with his position on Common Core education standards and immigration reform.
Whether or not an individual Republican candidate can ride independent support to victory, party officials are hoping a more competitive race will give them an extended opportunity to make their pitch to persuadable voters that carries over into the general election.
“I think theres a danger on the part of the Democrats in settling too early and I think, quite frankly, that helps us,” Iowa GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann told msnbc. “We have an electorate that’s still searching, and some of the energy might carry over into the independents.”
Democrats are aware that contested primaries in swing states like Iowa and New Hampshire may give the GOP a head start when it comes to organizing voters. Primary campaigns invest months and millions of dollars on identifying, persuading, and mobilizing voters on behalf of their individual candidates, and all that work can end end up benefiting the party’s nominee as well.
“Folks who turn out to vote in primaries are much, much more likely to turn out to vote in the fall,” Josh Putnam, a professor of government at Appalachian State University who runs election site Frontloading HQ, told msnbc.
To confront this issue, Obama’s reelection campaign began preparing for the 2012 general election in 2011, using the remnants of his 2008 campaign and the Democratic National Committee to pummel Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney in early primary states and organize Democrats. When the primaries did roll around, his campaign used them as a dry run to test get-out-the-vote efforts ahead of the general election.
Clinton will still need to compete in those primaries, but she can take a page from Obama in organizing early even if she doesn’t face a serious challenger. It may be a tough task to keep voters’ interest in her campaign, even though many will view her candidacy as a forgone conclusion, but Democrats say she can stay relevant by varying her message as time goes on, layering one rationale for a run on top of another.
Mitch Stewart, one of Obama’s top organizers from both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and current advisor to the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary, acknowledged the challenge, but said he’s not too concerned about it. “If the Republican primary is more interesting, that doesn’t mean that we’re doomed in the general election,” he said.
He recalled an example from his work during the 2004 election cycle for Edwards in Iowa. President George W. Bush was running for reelection and had no primary, so Republicans spent far less time organizing in the state. “In 2003, when I was in Iowa working on the caucus, there were five or six [Democratic] campaigns actively working the states for the year, and I remember leaving the state and thinking, there’s no way a Democrat will lose in Iowa in 2004,” he said.
Bush ended up narrowly defeating John Kerry in Iowa en route to his re-election.