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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Demographic Change and 2012

Many of you probably heard about the preliminary 2010 census estimates showing that the trend towards a nonwhite majority population has accelerated. Fortunately for us political junkies, the intrepid Ron Brownstein has already written up an informed glimpse for National Journal of what that might mean for the fate of the two major parties, beginning in 2012.
The relatively high percentage of minority Americans who are not old enough to vote (nearly half of under-18 Americans are from minority groups), and the significant number of Latinos who are not citizens, both mean non-Hispanic white voters will continue to punch above their demographic weight for some time to come. But even so, change is coming rapidly to that picture. Here’s Brownstein’s most important interpretation of the data:

If the minority share of the vote increases in 2012 by the same rate it has grown in presidential elections since 1992, it will rise to about 28 percent nationally. By itself, that could substantially alter the political playing field from 2010, when the minority vote share sagged to just 22 percent. It means that if Obama can maintain, or even come close to, the four-fifths share of minority votes that he won in 2008, he could win a majority of the national popular vote with even less than the 43 percent of whites he attracted last time.

Just as importantly, rapidly rising minority populations are especially notable in key battleground states. Check out these projections:

Obama, for instance, won Florida last time with 42 percent of the white vote; under this scenario, if he maintains his minority support he could win the Sunshine State with just under 40 percent of the white vote. With equal minority support in Nevada, the president could win with only 35 percent of the white vote, down from the 45 percent he garnered in 2008. Likewise, under these conditions, Obama could take Virginia with just 33.5 percent of whites, well down from the 39 percent he captured last time. In New Jersey, his winning number among whites would fall to just over 41 percent (compared with the 52 percent he won in 2008). In Pennsylvania, under these circumstances, 41 percent of white votes would be enough to put the state in Obama’s column, down from the 48 percent he won in 2008.

Brownstein also discusses the possibility that rising minority voting could put states like Texas and Georgia into play, which could have significant tactical implications in a close race even if winning these states is a reach for Obama.
Some analysts, of course, doubt that Obama will be able to replicate his astonishing 2008 performance among minority voters (or the historic turnout of African-Americans) in a less-historic election, and with the burdens of a struggling economy now on his back. Brownstein also runs state-by-state numbers under a scenario where Obama loses about a tenth of his 2008 minority support (roughly the percentage Democrats won in 2010, but with a higher turnout, as is typical in presidential years). Under that scenario, Obama would have to do as well or slightly better among white voters to win most battleground states. But anyway you slice it, the 2012 electorate will be significantly more positive for Democrats than the 2010 electorate, and even somewhat better than the 2008 electorate.
The variable that seems least likely to change between now and November of 2012 is stronger Republican appeal to minorities, given the hard-right trajectory of the GOP on virtually every policy issue, and the now-almost-anonymous hostility of GOP office-holders to comprehensive immigration reform (remember that both the outgoing Bush administration and 2008 GOP nominee John McCain had been conspicuous supporters, at least in the past, of comprehensive reform, which may have prevented an even more catastrophic performance among Latinos). Brownstein concludes by noting that the one thing GOPers could do to help themselves among Latinos is to put one of their number on the national ticket. I’d go further and say Marco Rubio is already a lead-pipe cinch for the vice-presidential nomination if he wants it.
All in all, elections are events in which demographic trends are relative to each other, and one vote equals another. But if a recovering economy and GOP radicalism make it possible for the Democratic ticket to get without shouting distance of its 2008 performance among white voters, demographic change is likely to be strong enough to put Obama back in office for a second term while giving Democrats a good chance at gains in the House and maintenance of control in the Senate. Meanwhile, the less immediate future looks very bright for the Donkey Party unless the Republican Party changes its atavistic ways.

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