It's now within a year of Election Day 2016. The Republican race for the nomination is still completely unsettled, the Democratic race a little less. But hardly anything has worked out according to conventional wisdom.
With that caveat, here are five big things that (we think!) will help determine the outcome of next year's election.
1. Voter Mood
Boy, are voters angry. They're anxious, fed up and disgusted. And they've got good reason to feel that way. For more than 20 years, middle-class incomes have stagnated. There's also been a prolonged period of political gridlock in Washington. Voters look abroad and see a world on fire, with the planet's sole superpower seemingly powerless to do anything about it except get involved in endless, futile wars.
All that is a recipe for political volatility. Since 2000, every election except 2012 has been a "change" election; that is, either the White House or one house of Congress has changed party control. Voters want change. They keep voting for it, but they don't seem to get what they want exactly.
On the Republican side, voters are angry at politicians, the media, President Obama and their own congressional leaders, who, despite having control of both houses of Congress, seem to be unable to stop Obama's agenda.
For months, about half of Republican voters have supported Donald Trump and Ben Carson — the two "outsider" candidates with no political experience. And Republican voters consistently say they prefer a nominee with no experience inside the system. And they tell pollsters they'd rather have a candidate who sticks to his principles rather than compromises in order to "get something done."
Democrats are also angry — at Wall Street, at billionaires and at an economic system that seems rigged against ordinary people. But Democrats tell pollsters they'd rather have a candidate who is willing to compromise. So, although voter anger is bipartisan — and there's a lot of overlap in its targets — it comes in two slightly different flavors this year.
2. The middle-class squeeze — what to do about it?
Elections are always about something. And next year's election will be about real incomes and economic mobility. Call it middle-class stagnation or middle-class squeeze — this is the problem that the two parties will say they can solve.
Democrats want to raise the minimum wage, make college debt free — or tuition free! — invest in infrastructure and expand Obamacare. Republicans want to cut taxes and regulations, increase school choice and replace Obamacare.
This substantive debate has yet to be fully joined, but bits and pieces of it are out there now. Next year's winner will have presented the more compelling answer to the question: How can I maintain a middle-class lifestyle and be sure my kids will have a chance to do better than me?
3. The economy
The economy is one of the most important political fundamentals. Wage growth and the jobless rate will help determine which party ends up in the White House. Though this recovery has had many positives, it has been long and it's not being felt strongly. Wages have only recently begun to tick up. Democrats breathed a huge sigh of relief at last week's jobs' report. If that trend continues, it will be easier for President Obama's party to hang on to the White House. If the recovery sputters, as it's done so many times before, Republicans will have an edge.
4. Obama's approval rating
Another leading political indicator is the president's popularity. In the modern era, only one man — George H. W. Bush — has managed to succeed a two-term president of his own party.
After eight years, Americans usually want a change. President Obama has said voters want that "new car smell." The two presidents who have seen their chosen successor win the popular vote — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — had approval ratings close to 60 percent. The other presidents, who were unable to elect their chosen successor, were all under 45 percent. Right now, Obama is hovering in the mid-to-high 40s. The exact tipping point is not clear, but Democrats would certainly prefer Obama's approval rating to be over 50 percent next year.
Democrats have had the edge in the electoral college in five of the last six presidential elections. The Obama coalition — younger, browner, more single, more secular, more female — might stay home in midterm elections (to Democrats dismay), but they have turned out in presidential years. At least for Obama. This is the part of the electorate that's growing.
The GOP coalition — older, whiter, more rural, more married, more churchgoing — is shrinking. So, the big demographic questions of 2016 are: can the Democrats hang onto the Obama coalition? And, can Republicans make at least some inroads with minorities and young people?
Democrats don't have a demographic lock on the election. There is no "blue wall," because people in the United States are not compelled to vote. And, if the GOP nominates a Hispanic or, say, a Florida-Ohio ticket, the election will likely be extremely competitive and very, very close.