WASHINGTON — There are two vital measures of the health of a political party: One is the depth of its backing by young people, voters who can build a strong, long-term base of support. The other is the depth of its bench, the strength of its leaders who are not yet national figures but soon might be.
By these two measures, the United States possesses two parties that may be more ideologically consistent than ever but whose fitness for the future may be more questionable than ever. That said, both parties have strengths as well.
Consider first the party that just came off a robust midterm election performance, leads both houses of Congress and holds three-fifths of the nation’s governors’ offices. The GOP also has more than a dozen plausible presidential candidates, some in their early 40s. These are advantages Republicans hold as we approach the 2016 presidential election.
But, among voters 18 to 34 years old — men and women who will be an important force in American politics for another half-century — Republicans are in serious trouble. By a factor of more than two to one, according to the latest NBC News/?Wall Street Journal poll, those voters take a negative view of the GOP. Indeed, Republicans find the most support among voters 65 and over, and even this group is split between those who have a positive view of the party and those who view it negatively.
This is not to say that everything looks good for Democrats. They do have the support of voters 18 to 34, and by a huge margin: 40 percent view the party positively, as against 25 percent who view it negatively. “Habits that get started early are habits that endure,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told me in an interview. “That’s an advantage we have, and one that we have to make sure we keep.”
But the Democrats have virtually no bench. They have basically one plausible presidential candidate with a national profile, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will be 68 years old by Election Day next year. No other Democratic candidate enjoys even a fraction of her support and, with only 18 Democratic governors (as opposed to 31 Republican governors) and only 44 members of the Senate, the party’s reserves are slim. Then there is the fact that the Democrats’ Senate leader is 75 and its House leader is 74.
These breakdowns skew the traditional view of each party.
“A lot of the assumptions we made about the demographics now are under question,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who sits on both the Finance and Judiciary committees. “The Democrats took the older voters for granted. Now they’re ours. But we’ve got some challenges among Hispanic and younger voters.”
And those challenges are a preoccupation of Republican strategists, whose approach right now can be summarized in the words of freshman Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who says that the Republicans’ message of “cheerful persistence about the future of our country” will prevail in the long run. Historically the Republicans have been strong on persistence and short on cheerfulness — a characteristic that Ronald Reagan changed in 1980.
These movements in the plate tectonics of politics have consequences far beyond elections. Issues also can change along demographic fault lines.
For example, Democrats for a generation opposed any changes in Social Security, in part because the income supplement for the aged was a legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and in part because Democrats’ view of the role of government made them congenial to a program that softened the burden of those with fixed incomes — but also in part because their voters, who included a large number of older Americans, simply would not permit it.
Now the Democrats’ power base is among young people, whose stake in Social Security is both far away and weak.
At the same time, Republicans traditionally have been far more open to changing Social Security. Their 1964 presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, thought out loud about abolishing it. As recently as the George W. Bush era, GOP leaders spoke of privatizing it. Now, older voters constitute one of the Republicans’ power centers and the incentive for Republicans — who won older voters by a plurality of 16 percentage points in the recent midterm congressional elections — to take on Social Security is diminished.
The Democrats’ age advantage may well be trumped by the weakness of their incumbents, however.
Of course, it is possible that even a single strong figure could spawn a group of party leaders, much the way FDR did in 1932 at a time when Democrats projected an old, weak and unimaginative image. One of those inspired by Roosevelt was Lyndon Johnson — and, it might be noted, Ronald Reagan, who himself inspired a generation of Republican leaders in the wake of the party’s Watergate disgrace.
Mrs. Clinton is well suited to perform much the same function, with the potential of launching a new generation of female leaders in the Democratic Party. But if she doesn’t prevail in 2016, the Democrats will be left with a lot of inspired followers and no inspiring national leaders, or at least none who are apparent now.
Then there is the Republican problem: a party full of leaders lacking followers. “We’ve got all these presidential candidates,” said newly inaugurated GOP Rep. Cresent Hardy, who last November defeated a Democratic incumbent, “and we’ve got to come up with one of them capable of beating the Democratic candidate.”
Mr. Hardy, who is from Nevada, which holds an important early contest in the presidential race, knows that the sorting out can sometimes be messy. Both parties have a lot of work to do. The future belongs to the one that faces its problems squarely, and honestly.