Pundits consumed with apprehension over the Republican Party’s electoral prospects regularly fret that the GOP’s primary process handicaps the party’s eventual nominee. They say that he or she is ultimately forced by the process to stake out positions that are too extreme for the broader electorate, and they will often cite Mitt Romney’s experience over the course of the 2012 cycle as an example. When political analysts make this case, they are usually talking about Romney’s contrived position on immigration reform and his politically problematic embrace of “self-deportation.”
It is certainly debatable as to how much of this condition is invented, or at least exacerbated, by the press. The media actively sought to make Romney’s premise a controversial one. Of course, it is preferable for illegal immigrants to elect voluntarily to avoid deportation proceedings by leaving the country of their own accord. No matter; the narrative that Romney and his Republican allies were hostile towards Hispanics stuck. Romney’s stumble serves as a ready example for those who seek to claim that the primary process is detrimental to otherwise electable politicians.
That premise is not invalid. Candidates who seek a presidential nomination are occasionally forced to adopt positions in line with the base of their party that might also diverge from the ideals favored by a more centrist general electorate. This is a snare in which Republicans are often caught, but not more so than Democrats. Over the Obama era, the Democratic Party’s activist base has grown more liberal, in the same way that the GOP’s partisans have become more conservative. While it is not shaping up to be competitive, there will be a Democratic primary process, and it might force the eventual nominee to the left of the general electorate.
As it stands, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is likely to cruise to the nomination and will make short work of the likes of Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Bernie Sanders. If she does not face a substantial challenger, Clinton may not feel that it is even necessary to alienate general election voters by competing with her fellow Democrats to appeal to the party’s liberal base. If she does not, however, anxiety on the left over Clinton’s liberal bona fides — or lack thereof — will only grow more pressing.
If she does engage in the mollification of the Democrats’ increasingly anxious liberal wing, Clinton will find that they will push her as far to the left of the general electorate as Romney was forced to the right. If there is a single issue where the left’s concerns do not align with those of the broader public, it is the issue of climate change.
A Pew Research Center survey released on Thursday quantifies this phenomenon. Ranging from terrorism, to crime, to race relations, Pew recently asked respondents which of 23 issues they regarded as a “top priority” for the president and the new Congress. Of those 23 priority issues, “global warming” came in at only 22. Just 38 percent of the public regarded that matter as a concern of paramount importance.
The amount of concern over the changing climate has, however, increased dramatically during Obama’s tenure in the White House. As recently as two years ago, only 28 percent cited “global warming” as a major issue facing the United States government – a 10-point increase in just 24 months. That bounce is due almost entirely to unease among Democrats.
According to Pew, concern over the warming climate has increased slightly among Republicans and independents, but panic over the changing environment has overtaken Democrats. The fear that “global warming” is not being comprehensively addressed is palpable on the left, and the number of Democrats who want to see this issue considered a top priority by American elected officials has increased by 16 points in the last two years. In 2013, only 38 percent of Democrats said the climate was a top priority. Today, that has increased to 54 percent.
The partisan divide over dealing with global warming is especially striking: 54% of Democrats view this as a top priority for the president and Congress compared with just 15% of Republicans. Democrats also are 31 points more likely than Republicans to prioritize protecting the environment (66% of Democrats vs. 35% of Republicans) and 30 points more likely to rate dealing with the problems of the poor and needy as a top goal.
By contrast, while 71% of Republicans say that strengthening the military should be a top priority, just 41% of Democrats agree.
Pew failed to note that, when it comes to strengthening the military, the GOP is far more in line with the general public’s thinking. 54 percent of all respondents said that the strengthening of America’s armed forces should be a priority for Obama and this Congress.
On Friday, NASA and NOAA revealed that a recently conducted study indicated that 2014 was the warmest year on record going back to the 1880s. That is only likely to panic Democratic partisans further. Can Hillary Clinton avoid addressing this topic, which is increasingly of paramount concern to the voters she hopes will christen her their standard-bearer in 2016? Maybe, but it will be a difficult needle to thread.
The coming primary contest will be one in which the parochial matter of climate change takes center stage for Democrats while Republicans debate the course of the economic recovery and the prosecution of the war against terrorism – the two concerns of primary importance among the general public. Which party’s candidate is more likely to emerge from the primaries weaker as a result of these prevailing conditions?