Hillary Clinton's increasingly likely candidacy for president in 2016 must be extremely frustrating for Republican strategists. Clinton is a strong candidate, but she is not invincible. If Clinton runs, she will face nominal opposition within her own party, but obviously a Republican will run against her. The most recent polls show her defeating any Republican challenger by between 7 to 9 points.
What makes Clinton's candidacy frustrating for Republicans is that while the formulas for beating her are relatively straightforward, the party is unable to implement them. Much of Clinton's strength comes from her support among white women, a constituency that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. Clinton does not, and probably will not, win a majority of these voters in 2016, but if she comes close, her victory will be all but certain.
The most obvious way to neutralize this advantage is for the Republicans to nominate a woman for president. Nominating a woman for president is something very different from finding a previously obscure female politician, putting her on the ticket at the last minute and hoping for the best. This is what John McCain did in 2008 and what the Republican nominee, whoever he is, will likely do in 2016. This strategy will not work against a Democratic ticket that will be led by a woman, particularly a woman with the experience and appeal of Hillary Clinton.
With the first primaries only about 18 months away, it is hard not to notice that there are no women in the field of likely Republican candidates for president. This reflects the failure of the Republican Party, over the last decade in particular to recruit and elect women to high level offices. For example, of the 20 women in the senate, only four are Republicans. Although there are four Republican governors who are women, none have made any indication of interest in the presidential race. Although a woman might provide the best chance for the Republicans to defeat Clinton, it is unlikely that a strong female candidate will emerge between now and the primary season, meaning that Clinton's vulnerability from another female candidate will almost certainly not be exploited by the Republicans in 2016.
Clinton's second vulnerability is not so much a vulnerability, but a potential Republican strength that is unlikely to be used in 2016. To win in 2016, the Republicans will have to get a lot of things right. One of these will be repositioning themselves by moving away from the far right on every issue and promoting a more libertarian brand of conservatism. There is increasing support among the American people for a less interventionist approach to foreign policy and a great deal of anger at the government that could be harnessed by the right conservative politician. These sentiments are particularly strong among younger voters.
The problem for the Republican Party is that they remain, at least on the surface, dominated by social conservatives. This, if left unchecked, will drag down the Republican Party regardless of its positions on the economy and foreign policy. The party of opposition to marriage equality, draconian drug laws, limiting access to contraception and abortion will have a very difficult time broadening its appeal, particularly among younger voters in 2016 or beyond.
It is unlikely that a Republican candidate will emerge who has the courage and resources to challenge the social conservatives who are so influential in the party. The only candidates among the front-runners who might be able to do this are Chris Christie and Jeb Bush who are, in the context of their peers, moderate Republicans, and Rand Paul. Paul's libertarian views, not surprisingly, do not extend to issues involving women's reproductive health. Christie and Bush will have to exhibit the kind of political courage that Romney could not summon, and take on the social conservatives during the primary season. If they don't do this, they will cede the center, on these issues, to Clinton.
A woman or even a man with moderate views on social issues would be a formidable candidate against Clinton. In that campaign, Clinton's record would be scrutinized more vigorously because of the presence of a legitimate and viable opponent. Finding a candidate like that who at the very least could make a serious bid for the nomination should not be too difficult for the Republican Party, but this Republican Party will not be able to find such a candidate, very likely paving the way for a victory by a strong Democratic candidate, but one who is a creature of the political establishment and conventional policy thinking at a time when anti-government views are quite strong. This will be a missed opportunity for the Republicans, and probably a win for Clinton and the Democrats in 2016.