Wednesday, November 07, 2012

On the factor of changing demographics in the 2012 United States election

Last night I shared on my Facebook wall Nate Silver's estimate that the odds were more than nine-to-one in favour of Obama's re-election. We'll see in a few hours how accurate that was. One factor contributing to what, at the very worst for Obama's prospects, would be a very close race will be a demographic factor, specifically the Republican Party's worrisome lack of strength among the United States' large and growing non-white populations. Take Jonathan Martin's Politico article, which starts from the scene of a misleadingly Republican Party rally in Ohio.

Regardless of whether Romney wins or loses, Republicans must move to confront its demographic crisis. The GOP coalition is undergirded by a shrinking population of older white conservative men from the countryside, while the Democrats rely on an ascendant bloc of minorities, moderate women and culturally tolerant young voters in cities and suburbs. This is why, in every election, since 1992, Democrats have either won the White House or fallen a single state short of the presidency.

“If we lose this election there is only one explanation — demographics,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

But Republicans are divided on the way forward. Its base is growing more conservative, nominating and at times electing purists while the country is becoming more center than center-right. Practical-minded party elites want to pass a comprehensive immigration bill, de-emphasize issues like contraception and abortion and move on a major taxes-and-spending deal that includes some method of raising new revenue.

[. . .]

“If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn’t conservative enough I’m going to go nuts,” said Graham. “We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough.”

Of the party’s reliance on a shrinking pool of white men, one former top George W. Bush official said: “We’re in a demographic boa constrictor and it gets tighter every single election.”

Poster J.F. at the Economist blog Democracy in America goes into more detail about the precise factors. (Thanks for the link, Leeman.)

As the article explains, "If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban’s possible he will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000. A broad mandate this is not." Absolutely. How dare he try to cobble together a majority using blacks, Latinos, single women (not to mention Asians, Jews and gays, all of whom will support Mr Obama by large majorities), "highly educated urban whites" and leave "real" white people out. Perhaps to correct for this strategy we ought to weight non-white votes differently from white votes. Three-fifths has a nice historical ring to it, doesn't it?

Joking aside, here is a fearless prediction: at some point, either tonight or after all the voter data has been collated, a talking head will refer to minority turnout as "unprecedented". These voters, you have no doubt heard, delivered the election to Mr Obama in 2008, and they will be credited again for showing up in such large numbers if he wins tonight. But while Mr Obama's star power may propelling higher minority turnout in the short term, simple demographics is the real cause of the changing electorate. Minority turnout has been "unprecedented" in presidential elections going back to 1988, and it should stay that way for many elections to come.

Pew's Hispanic Centre has dissected the changing face of the electorate. In 1988, whites made up 84.9% of voters; by 2008 that share had dropped to 76.3%. The share of black voters, meanwhile, rose from 9.8% to 12.1%, Hispanics from 3.6% to 7.4% and Asians from unlisted to 2.5%. True, the rise in black voter-share from 2004 to 2008 was quite sharp, and much of it can plausibly be attributed to the thrill of voting for America's first black president. But black voter-share had been rising since Mr Obama was still called Barry.

The broader trend in population is quite similar: the share of whites has been declining as the percentage of blacks, Hispanics and Asians has been rising (see here and here). Prediction is a mug's game, but it hardly counts as going out on a limb to believe that trend will continue. Here's a paper from Pew forecasting that by 2050 Hispanics will comprise nearly one-third of the populace, Asians nearly one-tenth and whites less than half (the black population will remain constant, according to the forecast).

This shift has had a huge impact, undermining many former Republican strongholds. Micah Cohen's post last week at Five Thirty Eight, "In Nevada, Obama, Ryan and Signs of a New (Democratic-Leaning) Normal", goes into more detail about Nevada's changing demographics and changing political trends over the past half-century.

Nevada was once reliably red, favoring the Republican candidate relative to the national popular vote in every presidential election but one — 1960 — from 1948 through 2004. The Silver State’s rightward bent began to dissipate in the 1990s and 2000s. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, carried Nevada in 1992 and 1996, although he was helped by the independent candidacy of Ross Perot, Mr. Damore said.

In 2004, Nevada was almost exactly at the national tipping point, only 0.13 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the nation. Then in 2008, Nevada made the switch. Mr. Obama won nationally by seven percentage points, and he carried the state by 12.5 points. For the first time since 1960, Nevada was more Democratic-leaning than the country.

In 2010, Nevada showed signs that 2008 was not an anomaly. Harry Reid, the Senator majority leader who was battling a Republican wave nationally and poor approval ratings locally, upset expectations (and the polls) to defeat the Republican Sharron Angle in Nevada’s Senate race.

[. . .]

Nevada led the nation in population growth for the past two decades, more than doubling in size to 2.7 million, from 1.2 million in 1990. Fueling that growth has been Democratic-leaning demographic groups: Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans. While Nevada’s non-Hispanic white population grew by 12 percent from 2000 to 2010, African-Americans grew by 58 percent, Asians by 116 percent and Hispanics by 82 percent.

Non-Hispanic whites are still a majority in Nevada, but barely, comprising 54 percent of the state. Hispanics are 27 percent, African-Americans are almost 9 percent, and Asians are about 8 percent.

The state’s booming population has also made Nevada more urban, as the growth has been focused primarily in and around Las Vegas and Reno. Nevada is now the third most urban state in terms of population, according to the 2010 census.

Rural Nevada — which has not seen the population boom that Las Vegas and Reno have — is still overwhelmingly Republican. But it accounts for only about 15 percent of the state population, Mr. Damore said.

Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, is home to more than 70 percent of Nevadans. It is a majority minority county and a Democratic stronghold. The core of Las Vegas is the most left-leaning and predominantly Hispanic and African-American. The Las Vegas suburbs are more politically competitive, similar to suburban communities in Colorado or Virginia, Mr. Damore said.

Why this weakness? Chris Thompson's June article in Rolling Stone, polemical though it may be, places its causes squarely and--I think--accurately--on a fair perception among Hispanics and other groups that the Republican Party doesn't like them very much.

Today, California is competing with Massachusetts and Vermont for the title of bluest state in the Union. Democrats utterly dominate state politics and run all the major cities from north to south, Los Angeles to the Bay Area.

As for the state’s Republicans, they used to roam the freeways and cul-de-sacs in great, thundering herds. Now, they cling to a few isolated enclaves along the beaches of San Diego, farmlands of the Central Valley, and retirement communities near the Oregon border. And they are old and white in a state that's increasingly young and brown.

Two decades of immigration and changing demographics have steadily eroded the Republican base in the Golden State. But rather than adapt to this new reality, the state party lurched deep into the far-right swamplands of American politics. As the state grew more socially liberal, the last of the Republicans doubled down on conservatism, and sank into irrelevancy.

[. . .]

From the late 1960s through the ‘80s, California was a Republican paradise. White suburban families propelled men like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and governor George Deukmejian to the heights of power, and Orange County, just south of LA, was synonymous with political and cultural conservatism. But by the early 1990s, the Party’s base was growing more and more anxious. The aerospace and defense industries were shriveling, and metropolitan liberals were spilling over from Hollywood and San Francisco, transforming cities like San Jose from farm communities into expensive high-tech centers. In the biggest and most visible shift, the Latino population was surging, making up 25 percent of the state’s population by 1990.

In 1994, incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, faced a tough reelection fight. The recession was still lingering in California, and he had to answer for it. His Democratic challenger was Kathleen Brown, the sister of Jerry Brown and a tough political fighter. Wilson needed something to distract voters from the economy – something that would spook enough of them into rallying behind him.

He found it. Wilson pulled his campaign together by running on two divisive state ballot initiatives – Proposition 184, the notorious "Three Strikes" law, which played into suburban residents’ fear of crime, fears stirred up by the Rodney King riots just two years earlier; and the sinister Proposition 187 – the "Save our State" initiative, which conjured images of parasitical Latinos swarming into California and proposed denying social services such as public education and some medical care to the children of illegal immigrants.

"They had a famous ad that showed undocumented immigrants streaming across the border, and it was sort of the rats streaming onto the ship," says Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political science professor and longtime observer of California politics. "It was extremely offensive, but it worked for Pete Wilson."

Did it ever. Not only did Wilson win reelection, the Republicans made historic gains in the state legislature, winning a majority in the state Assembly for the first time in years. But the strategy would prove to be the white sugar of California politics: tasty in the short term, but disastrous in the years ahead.

As the 1990s wore on, Republicans overplayed their hand, pushing one racially-tinged wedge issue after another at the ballot box, banning Affirmative Action, ending bilingual education in the public schools, and enacting a new round of draconian punishments for juvenile delinquents. They rode these propositions to victory, but alienated the Latino population and propelled a wave of white resentment that now defines Republican politics. "It was a case of, 'Hey this worked, let’s keep pushing that button,'" Cain says. "But once you start doing that, you unleash forces within your own party that you can’t really control."

[. . .]

Aside from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – who was elected only by dint of a bizarre recall circus in 2003, and was despised by his own conservative base – almost no Republican has won statewide office since the mid-1990s. From Latinos to black voters and urban professionals, the Republican Party managed to alienate every growing segment of California society, all for the sake of inflaming the passions of the one demographic group that was actually shrinking.

[. . .]

Now, the damage is clear. Latinos comprise 37.6 percent of California’s population, and years of demonization at the hands of Republicans have compelled millions of them to register and vote. Democrats enjoy a 52-27 majority in the Assembly, and a 21-17 majority in the Senate. From United States Senator to Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, every single major statewide office is occupied by a Democrat. Meanwhile, the latest presidential polling has Obama up on Romney among Latinos by a staggering 57-15 percent.

It goes without saying that it's very worrisome when one of the political parties in a country with a two-party political system is unable to attract the support of large, growing, and increasingly visible proportions of the country's population.



Unknown said...

Well 187 never got implemented so the Republicans (and the state budget) never got to reap the long term benefits of passing the law. The republicans in CA never had much support amongst Latino voters to begin with so alienating a small portion,probably 10-15%, of Latino voters would be a reasonable sacrifice in order to suppress their share of the electorate in the long term.

Randy McDonald said...

And the Republicans never would have more support. It's a case of false economies, briefly, of prioritizing short-term gains over long-term decline.

Richard said...

Huh? That's assuming that you could suppress their share of the electorate. What are you going to do? Deny Latino citizens the right to vote? Force abortions on Latino women like they do in Communist China?

Your way of thinking is why the GOP will spin itself in to a irrelevent party of bitter old white men. Thanks to people like you, the Democrats will have a run in power as long as the New Deal coalition from 1932->1968.