WASHINGTON — Ten days before he died, John F. Kennedy met in the White House for several hours with his political advisers. The 1964 campaign was taking shape — Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller were the leading Republican rivals — and the president was worrying about what his party had to offer to average voters.
“[W]hat is it that we can [do to] make them decide that they want to vote for us, Democrats and Kennedy?” the president asked. “We hope we have to sell them prosperity, but for the average guy the prosperity is nil. He’s not unprosperous, but he’s not very prosperous … And the people who really are well-off hate our guts …”
That very conversation could be held in Barack Obama’s White House. He’s not running for re-election, but his Democrats face the voters in November’s midterm congressional elections and then his political heirs do so again in the presidential election two years hence. And now, as on Nov. 12, 1963, when Kennedy thought out loud in front of his advisers, the average guy is not very prosperous and the people who really are well-off hate the Democrats’ guts.
The Democrats do have some advantages. Three of the four biggest states have growing Hispanic populations and the fourth, New York, seems permanently out of reach for the GOP. Mitt Romney took only a quarter of the Hispanic vote in 2012 and John McCain won only a third four years earlier.
But that is not to say the Democrats have smooth sailing ahead. They face several substantial problems in 2016:
• The solidification of the South.
The Republicans can count on the support of white voters who are as loyal to the GOP as black voters are to the Democrats. Though Mr. Obama will not be on the ballot in 2016, the Democrats speak a language white Southerners do not embrace.
Still, there are quiet but growing hopes among Democrats that they may eventually return to power in Texas, which has voted Republican in the last nine presidential elections and in 10 of the 11 elections since 1972. Census figures show the Hispanic portion of the population of Texas is more than double the national rate — more than a third of Texans do not speak English at home — and whites now constitute less than half the state’s population. In 2012, 70 percent of Hispanics in Texas voted for Mr. Obama.
Yet the Democrats harbor no such bright hopes in Oklahoma (67 percent for Mr. Romney), Alabama and Arkansas (61 percent each), Louisiana (58 percent), Mississippi (56 percent) — and even in a Southern-oriented state that broke away from the Confederacy a century and a half ago, West Virginia (62 percent). Those states account for 41 electoral votes, blunting the potential drift of Texas’s 38 electoral votes from the Republican column.
• Resentment over the state of the economy and lingering worries about Obamacare.
Several studies indicate that the recovery from the Great Recession has been less robust than that of any post-war recovery, producing a job market more forbidding than that of previous recessions.
That notion was underscored by Fed chair Janet Yellen, who in a speech this spring acknowledged “the recovery still feels like a recession to many Americans, and it also looks that way in some economic statistics.” She noted national unemployment is still higher than it ever got during the 2001 recession.
This is a particular burden to blacks, who won’t have as great an incentive to vote in 2016 as they did when Mr. Obama ran in 2008 and 2012, and to younger voters, who may not be as mobilized for the 2016 Democratic nominee as they were for Mr. Obama in 2008. These two groups, Ms. Yellen said, “are facing a job market today that is nearly as tough as it was during the two downturns that preceded the Great Recession.”
At the same time, the public remains skeptical of Obamacare, and the Republicans remain convinced it can be an important issue in both this year’s midterm congressional elections and in the 2016 presidential election.
• The Kennedy worry, applied to 2016: What can the Democrats do to make Americans vote for them, given the tepid economy?
A century ago it was not unusual for parties to hold the presidency more than two consecutive terms; the Republicans did it for three between 1921 and 1933 and for four from 1897 to 1913, and the Democrats for five between 1933 and 1953. Since then, only once (from 1981 to 1993, through Ronald Reagan’s two terms followed by George H.W. Bush’s single term) has a party exceeded two terms.
The challenge former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or any other Democrat faces in the next presidential election is that any party nominee will be portrayed as offering a reprise of the two Obama terms.
Mr. Obama doesn’t have public support that remotely approaches that of Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, Reagan in 1988 or even of Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Indeed, Gov. Al Smith of New York, the Democrats’ 1928 nominee and an unlikely Coolidge admirer, said the 30th president was “distinguished for character more than for heroic achievement.”
By contrast, Mr. Obama’s disapproval ratings have exceeded his approval ratings for the past 49 weeks. That could turn around, but hardly anyone regards Mr. Obama as a political asset at this point in the political cycle. This is attributable not only to concerns about the economy but also to worries that the president seems powerless in the face of the muscular foreign policy of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The Democrats have another problem: If Mrs. Clinton doesn’t run, the party has a weak bench, led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and followed by a handful of relative unknowns. Then again, Gov. Jimmy Carter and Sen. Barack Obama, not exactly household names, moved into the White House.
But the difficulty a Democrat faces succeeding Mr. Obama is perhaps the party’s most difficult hurdle, and also the most surprising. Many analysts believed that 2008 signaled a generation-long Democratic breakthrough. That seems less plausible today. In the long run, demography suggests the Republicans are in trouble. In the short run, the issues suggest the Democrats may be in trouble.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890).