If history alone holds the key then Republicans should be going into the 2016 presidential cycle as the party to beat. They do have some distinct advantages, however I still think at this point in time they have a lot to prove. Among their advantages:

The Direction of the Nation – President Obama’s approval numbers are about average but voters are still in a foul mood. Only three in ten feel the nation is heading in the right direction.

National Security – this has been a traditional strength for the GOP. While Mr. Obama stole this issue from the Republicans in the aftermath of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, he has lost this mantel and the GOP is seen as the clear favorite on this issue.

Asserting American Exceptionalism—the GOP is also seen as more robust on foreign policy and more willing to intervene in trouble spots. This has solid appeal among older voters.

Time for a Change – there is almost a built in cycle of eight years for a party in control of the presidency. Even President Dwight Eisenhower presided over eight years of peace and prosperity yet John K. Kennedy was still able to challenge the GOP on anemic growth and on weak foreign policy.

But the Republicans have some real problems. In addition to a serious demographic shortfall and an established tradition of losing most of the key battleground states, there is a serious party rift among social conservatives, libertarians, deficit hawks, and more traditional free market conservatives.

I believe they will be aided greatly by the Democrats nominating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While Mrs. Clinton has shown that she can campaign, listen to voters, and persuade doubters, she is going into the race with facing several problems. Voters will want change and no candidate appears to represent the establishment more than the former First Lady, Senator from New York, and former Secretary of State. How will she relate to the current incumbent? If she runs from him, she risks doing what a number of unsuccessful Senate candidates did in 2010 – distancing themselves from the one candidate that can help bring out the base of the party’s voters. If she embraces Mr. Obama (and her husband), she is running as an incumbent when voters may be looking for something fresh.

I have noted before that I think Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Scott Walker offer the freshest images and clearest choices for the GOP thus far. But they face several hurdles:

Iraq – this has become the new Vietnam and the new “who lost China” issue in national politics? GOP candidates are already attempting to distance themselves from the decision of President George W. Bush to attack and occupy Iraq. Doing so cuts ties with their own history and most pervasive ideology. If they embrace the Iraq decision they do so among an electorate that strongly feels the war was not worth the loss of American lives.

Gay Marriage – public opinion has markedly shifted on this issue. Candidates who oppose this paint themselves into a corner of being mean-spirited and too narrow-minded. Even a more open-minded standard-bearer will still have to deal with representing a party which includes large numbers of anti-gay (and anti-gay marriage) voters.

Immigration – I learned in focus groups done among Latino voters in the late 1990s after California’s famous Proposition 187 that denied certain state services to illegal residents, that Latino voters are united on this issue. There is a tautology with which they see the issue: “Anti-illegal equals anti-immigration; anti-immigration equals anti-Latino.” The GOP simply cannot afford to alienate Latinos as much as they have in the past two election cycles.

In addition to dealing with these issues, the GOP will have to present itself as a credible alternative. Besides unifying their own party voters – a task less daunting because of near-universal disgust with President Obama and his policies – they will have to be seen as worthy of assuming the position they served so poorly for the eight years before Mr. Obama. Right now they benefit from being seen by voters as better able to handle many issues, but a lot will depend on whether the economy continues to improve and Mr. Obama scores a few foreign policy victories.