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What to Watch for: Next Year’s Biggest Stories in Politics

• December 30, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: VinzStudio/Shutterstock)

Will the mid-term elections settle anything? And who will the 2016 presidential candidates be?

Well, 2013 was a fun year for politics, wasn’t it? But it ended like a cliffhanger. We have so many exciting and unanswered questions to look forward to. Such as…

WILL THE GOP EAT ITSELF?
The Republican Party has been on a real roller coaster ride over the past few months. At the end of the government shutdown in October, they were historically unpopular and appeared to be under the control of a fringe Tea Party contingent. Just a few weeks later, once the Obamacare rollout foundered, they weren’t looking too bad, at least compared to their competitors, and party leaders seemed more comfortable telling off the Tea Party. So where does that leave them positioned for 2014? Will Tea Party adherents and opponents end up going to war against each other in the primaries? Will Tea Partiers bolt the GOP and run their own candidates in the congressional mid-term elections?

We might keep in mind that parties tend to unify as elections approach, and that political activists like Tea Party adherents have proven to have strategic motivations beyond their ideological goals. So while the Tea Party isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, their influence won’t necessarily run the Republican Party off a cliff. Then again, this past year’s events weren’t easily predictable.

The key thing to keep in mind is that polls about 2016 are just not very meaningful right now. A poll about the 2016 primaries will measure little more than name recognition at this point.

WILL THE MID-TERMS SETTLE ANYTHING?
John Sides and Eric McGhee offered an early forecast for the 2014 congressional mid-terms, suggesting that very little will likely change in the House or the Senate next year. Republicans could pick up a handful of seats, but they mostly grabbed the vulnerable districts back in 2010, so any changes are likely to be quite modest. The tide could swing the Democrats’ way a bit if the economy continues to gain steam and the HealthCare.gov rollout begins to fade from memory, or it could swing back Republicans’ way a bit, but again, not much change.

Which means that the nation’s political structure will likely not change much for 2015 and 2016. President Obama will continue to try to protect his legislative accomplishments from his first term while congressional Republicans attempt to chip away at them, and budget battles will continue to be contentious. Should Republicans take over the Senate (a distinct possibility), that would certainly change the calculus of Supreme Court nominations (should any vacancies occur), and the fate of the filibuster remains in question.

WHAT WILL LEGAL POT BE LIKE?
At 12:00 a.m. MST this Wednesday, the first legal sales of marijuana will occur in Colorado. Other sales will follow shortly in Washington state. How will this actually work? Colorado has been scrambling to come up with a legal architecture for this new industry, and the results look more modest than many expected (e.g.: There will be a very limited number of distributors, it can only be used at home rather than in cafes or large parties, etc.), but there are some creative entrepreneurs at work already. But what will this look like in a few months? Will marijuana lose some of its stigma? Will it lose some of its caché? Will usage actually increase substantially, or are the people who would use it already finding ways of getting it? And, perhaps most importantly, will Colorado’s and Washington’s experiences end up serving as an example or a warning to other states?

WHO WILL THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES BE?
Believe it or not, but we’re already in the middle of the “invisible primary,” that period when networks of endorsers, donors, and activists examine the next round of potential presidential candidates and decide who is acceptable and who isn’t. This will heat up in 2014, but keep in mind that what you read in the newspapers isn’t necessarily reflective of what’s going on behind the scenes. Hillary Clinton could probably have the Democratic nomination if she wants it, but no one’s really sure whether she wants it. (She may quite sincerely not know herself yet.) Chris Christie got some good coverage in 2013, but just because people know his name doesn’t mean he’s a shoe-in for the nomination. Tea Party activists, Christian conservatives, and others who are important to the Republican nomination process aren’t completely sold on him yet given his relatively moderate stances on some issues and his famous embrace of President Obama during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. These activists largely feel like they lost out in the nominations of John McCain and Mitt Romney and their party lost anyway, so why continue to compromise? Some of those activists may prefer Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or someone else, although it’s hard to see those candidates winning supporters beyond their factional bases.

The key thing to keep in mind is that polls about 2016 are just not very meaningful right now. A poll about the 2016 primaries will measure little more than name recognition at this point, and a poll about the general election is really just a wild guess. (Interestingly, a recent CNN poll predicted a dead heat for a Clinton-Christie race. This isn’t a bad guess about the candidates or the outcome, but it’s just that, a guess.) To get a better sense of what’s going on, listen to the noises that governors and members of Congress are making about the candidates as they consider making endorsements. Follow what activists in places like Iowa and New Hampshire are doing and get a sense of how they’re sizing up the candidates. Mark Blumenthal provided some excellent coverage along these lines in 2011-12, and hopefully he and others will start that up again soon for the 2016 cycle.

Above all, as we enter the new year, let’s remember that there are no permanent victories or permanent defeats in politics. The parties and candidates will have their ups and downs, but no one is about to put anyone else out of business for good.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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