Monday, July 13, 2015

The Democrats' Demographic Edge

The changing demographics of voters could give Democrats in edge in the next presidential election. (photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)
The changing demographics of voters could give Democrats in edge in the next presidential election. (photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)

By Charlie Cook, The Atlantic

Longterm trends may favor the party, but offer no guarantee of success in 2016.

art of what makes the 2016 presidential race so much fun is that two very astute observers looking at it through two different lenses can come up with two totally different predictions about which party is likely to prevail.

Looking at the race through a historical lens, the odds would seem stacked against Hillary Clinton (assuming that she is the Democratic nominee). In the post-World War II era, only six times has one party held the presidency for two consecutive terms, and only once has that party kept the White House for a third—a pattern that reflects what I call the “time for a change” voter dynamic. In fact, the last Democratic president directly elected to succeed another was James Buchanan, in 1856; he followed Franklin Pierce.

But looking through a demographic lens, the modern GOP's increasing reliance on a shrinking pool of older, white, and working-class voters—and its failure to attract nonwhite voters—would seem to present an enormous obstacle to the eventual Republican nominee. In 1980, when nonwhite voters were just 12 percent of the electorate, Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of white voters and was elected in a landslide. But in 2012, when nonwhite voters accounted for 28 percent of the electorate, Mitt Romney took 59 percent of white voters—and lost the presidential race by 4 percentage points. Without a total brand makeover, how can Republicans expect to prevail with an even more diverse electorate in 2016?

Although we don't yet know the identity of the future GOP nominee, we can begin to surmise what the electorate will look like next November. Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman recently crunched census and exit-poll data to build a statistical model of the likely electorate in each state, breaking down voters into five distinct groups: 1) whites with college degrees, 2) whites without college degrees, 3) African-Americans, 4) Latinos, and 5) Asians/others.

First, the good news for Democrats: If the electorate evolves in sync with the Census Bureau's estimates of the adult citizen population (admittedly, a big if), the white share of the electorate would drop from 72 percent in 2012 to 70 percent in 2016; the African American share would remain stable at 13 percent; the Latino portion would grow from 10 percent to 11 percent; and the Asian/other segment would increase from 5 percent to 6 percent. If the 2012 election had been held with that breakdown (keeping all other variables stable), President Obama would have won by 5.4 percentage points rather than by his actual 3.85-point margin.

In addition, the group with which the GOP does best—whites without college degrees—is the only one poised to shrink in 2016. President Obama won just 36 percent of these voters in 2012, while 42 percent of white voters with college degrees pulled the lever for him. But if the electorate changes in line with census estimates, the slice of college-educated whites will grow by 1 point, to 37 percent of all voters, while the portion of whites without degrees will shrink 3 points, to just 33 percent of the total. In other words, the GOP doesn't just have a growing problem with nonwhites; it has a shrinkage problem as well, as conservative white seniors are supplanted by college-educated millennials with different cultural attitudes.

All that said, none of these data points proves that Republicans are doomed in 2016; in fact, the GOP has some reason for optimism. First, hard math makes talk of Democrats “expanding the map” by capitalizing on favorable demographic trends in Arizona and Georgia sound premature at best. For example, Romney beat Obama by 7.8 percentage points in Georgia in 2012. Wasserman estimates that the white share of the electorate there could decline from 64 percent to 62 percent—but that change by itself wouldn't erase even a third of Romney's margin of victory in the state.

Furthermore, the shifts a Republican would need to win the Electoral College vote might be less dramatic than commonly thought. If you're searching for the “magic number” of Latinos that Republicans would need to capture the White House, you may not find one. Even if Romney had done 10 points better with Latinos in every state in 2012—winning 37 percent instead of 27 percent nationally—he would have won only one additional state: Florida. That's primarily because Latino voters tend to be concentrated in states such as California, New York, and Texas, which aren't Electoral College battlegrounds. However, if the Republican nominee were to do just 3 points better across all five segments of the electorate in 2016—a goal many GOP candidates easily surpassed in 2014—he or she would win seven more states, and 305 electoral votes.

That may be easier said than done. But the bottom line is that demographic trends, while helpful to Democrats, are no guarantee that the party will hold the White House beyond 2017.


+8 # Billy Bob 2015-07-12 16:32
This article goes to great pains to "even the news out". This is nothing but bad for Republicans, and there's no way to paint them out of the bind they're in, no matter how you look at it.

Our next president WILL be a Democrat.

"Which Democrat?" is the question. If it's Hillary, she'll win and act even further to the right of Obama. If it's Sanders, he'll have to overcome his age, and his "socialism", but he will still win in the end, and govern far to the left of Obama. Perhaps O'Maly still has a chance. Lincoln Chaffee and Jim Webb don't.
-2 # Rain17 2015-07-13 07:15
Billy Bob, I think you are being way too premature. I think it is way too early to declare that a Democrat will win the White House in 2016 automatically.
0 # Billy Bob 2015-07-13 11:42
You're entitled to your predictions, Rain, which you CONSTANTLY harp on about. So am I.
+1 # davidr 2015-07-13 10:27
I think you're right, Billy Bob.

"… if the Republican nominee were to do just 3 points better across all five segments of the electorate in 2016 …"

That's quite a parlay! Cook doesn't tell us HOW it happens, just IF it happens. Which GOP candidate can bring it off?

Which one can unify his (Carly ain't happening) own party for this formidable task? And if that unlikely unity-candidate emerges out of what will be a damaging primary process, will he have the charisma & popularity, to add 79 electoral votes to the 2012 total of Romney/Ryan? They thought Obama would be easy to beat, but at the end of the day he could have GIVEN BACK every state where his margin was less than 5% & still won the Presidency!

How do we suppose 2016 will be different when the electorate is less favorable? when the Senatorial map is blue? when neither the economy nor foreign affairs are particularly good issues for the GOP? when the ticket will be no stronger than Romney/Ryan (who? Walker/Rubio?) when Obama campaigns like crazy to deliver his winning constituency intact for the Dems?

Where does the GOP pick up 79 net electoral votes in these circumstances? I think you could win a lot of money betting Dems and giving 70 points.
0 # Billy Bob 2015-07-13 11:46
Thanks, David,

Here's the only possible scenario I can imagine:

Republicans run Ayn Rand Paul (with the help of the media focusing on his "pro-pot"-"anti -war" agenda. Meanwhile, the Democrats run Clinton, who appears to be running to his RIGHT on the war issue. Suddenly, you might find millennials (who don't pay attention to things like Social Security), deciding to vote for the so called "peace" candidate.

In that scenario, Paul's their best bet, and Clinton's our worst.

Otherwise, you'd have to be blind or paranoid (like Rain) not to see the obvious changes in demographics that have been charging at us like an elephant, that's now in the room.

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