America's New Electorate - the coming effect of rising minority populations

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Niccolo and Donkey
America's New Electorate

The Atlantic Monthly

Ronald Brownstein

April 1, 2011

Voters in Miami Beach wait to cast their ballots in the 2008 presidential election. credit: Hans Deryk/Reuters

The next America is arriving ahead of schedule. And it could rattle assumptions about the coming presidential election.

Last week's release of national totals from the 2010 census showed that the minority share of the population increased over the past decade in every state, reaching levels higher than demographers anticipated almost everywhere, and in the nation as a whole. If President Obama and Democrats can convert that growth into new voters in 2012, they can get a critical boost in many of the most hotly contested states and also seriously compete for some highly diverse states such as Arizona and Georgia that until now have been reliably red.
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"One of the strengths of our candidacy in 2008 is, we had a broader battlefield; what these numbers suggest is that those same opportunities are there [for 2012], and there are new ones to consider," David Axelrod, who is expected to be Obama's senior campaign strategist, told National Journal.

Even as the growing minority population creates new opportunities for Democrats, however, the party faces persistent challenges within the majority-white community. In November's midterm elections, Republicans won 60 percent of white voters--the highest share of whites they have attracted in any congressional election in the history of modern polling. Since May, Obama's job-approval rating among whites has exceeded 40 percent only twice in Gallup's weekly summary of its nightly polling. Unless the economic recovery accelerates, many analysts in both parties believe that Obama could struggle to match the modest 43 percent of white voters he captured in 2008.

(Also see "Where Obama's White Vote Matters Less in 2012." )

These twin dynamics suggest that in many states the key question for 2012 may be whether Republicans can increase their advantage among whites enough to overcome what's likely to be a growing share of the overall vote cast by minorities, who still break preponderantly for Democrats. In Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Virginia, and other key states that have experienced substantial minority growth, a National Journal analysis shows that Obama can win next year with a stunningly small percentage of the white vote--if Democrats can translate the minority-population growth into commensurate increases in the electorate.

Unless Democrats regain some of the support they lost in 2010, Obama has no guarantee of matching his 2008 share of the white vote, especially in metal-bending states such as Ohio and Indiana where voters without a college education dominate the white population. "You have a situation where the bleeding can be so severe that it can overwhelm the changes that are positive," says Ruy Teixeira, an electoral and demographic analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress.

But in more racially diverse states, NJ's analysis suggests, Republicans may need to win an implausibly high percentage of whites to prevail, unless they can also reduce Obama's advantage among minorities. "I think Republicans have long felt and known we need to do better in minority communities," says GOP consultant Mike DuHaime, the field director for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. Pursuing that goal is likely to acquire more urgency as both parties digest the implications of the census.


In releasing its final 2010 national results last week, the Census Bureau sent Americans a postcard from the future. From every angle, the results showed that the nation's transformation into a "majority-minority" nation is proceeding even faster than expected. Nationally, the overall share of the non-Hispanic white population dropped from 69.1 percent in 2000 to 63.7 in 2010, a greater decline than most analysts anticipated. In a mirror image, the minority population grew from 30.9 percent in 2000 to 36.3 percent in 2010.

The change over the past decade was especially dramatic among young people. In the new census, 46.5 percent of people under 18 were minority, a dramatic jump from 39.1 percent in 2000. As recently as last summer, demographers projected that minorities would make up a majority of the under-18 population sometime after 2020. At the current rate of growth, however, nonwhites will comprise a majority of children in the United States by 2015. And because of the explosive minority growth in the youth population--the people who will form families and become parents in the coming years--the nonwhite share of the overall population is likely to grow even faster over the next decade, says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.

The census numbers are "telling us about our future," Frey says. "I see this as a pivot decade. This decade what we're seeing is, these Hispanics and Asians are really crucial to our country because they are juxtaposed against an aging white population. It is really the new minorities--Hispanics and Asians--that are driving where we're headed." Strikingly, as Frey notes, the census found that the number of whites under 18 declined by more than 4 million over the past decade, even as the number of minority young people increased by more than 6 million.

Not only the depth but also the breadth of the minority expansion turned heads. From 2000 through 2010, the minority share of the population increased in every state. Four states are now majority minority: Hawaii, New Mexico, California, and Texas. In eight other states, minorities make up from 40 to 50 percent of the population. In 2000, minorities were 40 percent or more of the population in just four states.

Diversity is sprouting even in places long considered alabaster: In the new census, minorities represent more than 20 percent of the population in Utah, nearly 18 percent in Indiana, 17 percent in Minnesota, 16 percent in Idaho, and 15 percent in South Dakota. Minority populations in Iowa and North Dakota poked into double digits. "This is a universal story," says Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic analysis and advocacy group. "Even though there are some places where this is happening with greater intensity, it is happening universally all over the country."
"The new minorities--Hispanics and Asians--are driving where we're headed." --Demographer William Frey​

Hispanics are the driving engine of this growth. On the national level, Latinos now represent one in six Americans, or nearly 50.5 million in all. That's up from one in eight, about 35.3 million, in 2000. The Hispanic share of the population increased over the past decade in every state, with dramatic gains recorded not only in Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas but also in Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Latinos accounted for a majority of the population growth in 18 states, at least 40 percent of the growth in seven more, and at least 30 percent in five others. In sum, Hispanics fueled about a third or more of the population growth in 30 states. "The big umbrella [story] in the census is the Hispanic dispersion across the country," Frey says. "It has become even more dramatic this decade than the last decade."

Niccolo and Donkey

The increasingly nonwhite tilt of the youth population has profound implications for American politics into the distant horizon. The young, increasingly minority population is likely to view public investment in schools, health care, and infrastructure as critical to its economic prospects, while the predominantly white senior population might be increasingly reluctant to fund such services through taxes. The trends could portend a lasting structural conflict. (See "The Gray and the Brown: The Generational Mismatch," NJ, 7/24/10, p.14.)

In the near term, though, the more relevant change is the growing minority presence in the over-18 population. The change in that group was not quite as rapid as among young people, but it was substantial: The minority share of that adult population rose from 28 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2010. That's an annual rate of increase of one-half a percentage point; if this trend continues, minorities will represent 34 percent of American adults by the 2012 election.

Minorities' share of the vote, however, has always lagged their share of the population. That's partly because of differentials in registration and turnout, but also because a substantial number of Hispanics are either in the U.S. illegally or have not gone through the process to become citizens. Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonpartisan group that supports Hispanic political participation, estimates that 13 million Hispanics who are eligible to register to vote have not done so, a number equal to about 40 percent of the adult Hispanic population.

That large untapped pool helps explain why Hispanics, who are now 14 percent of the adult population, cast only 9 percent of the votes in the last presidential election. The proportion of Asians in the electorate also substantially trails their presence in the population: They represent almost 5 percent of adults, but cast only 2 percent of votes in 2008, according to exit polls. African-Americans actually punched above their weight in that election, casting 13 percent of ballots while representing just 11.6 percent of all adults, the new census results show.

Even though minorities haven't maximized their potential impact in the electorate, the sheer weight of the underlying population change has been irresistible. Since 1992, exit polls have found that the percentage of nonwhite voters in presidential elections has more than doubled, from 12 percent when Bill Clinton first won the White House to 26 percent in 2008. Obama got four-fifths of that nonwhite vote, which helps explain how he won the largest share of the popular vote of any Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson while winning only 43 percent of whites' votes.

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.

Axelrod rejects the notion that Obama is destined to receive less support among whites or more support among minorities. "This is a dynamic environment," he says. "We are going to compete for all voters. It is a little too glib to make an assumption that 100 percent is going one way or another for each race or ethnicity."

But Axelrod acknowledges the obvious: For the Obama campaign, the shifting demography can be a crucial factor in "states that are close" if Democrats can convert it to increased voter participation. Other operatives in Obama's orbit privately acknowledge that blue-collar voters' enduring difficulties with the president could make it tougher for him to hold older, preponderantly white states such as Indiana, Ohio, and even Wisconsin. The uphill climb in those states will increase the pressure on Obama to capture such growing, diverse states as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia. Of the two behemoth swing states in American politics, some key figures in the Obama camp now view capturing Florida as a distinctly better bet than winning Ohio.

Meanwhile, just as important as the deepening diversification of Florida and other minority-rich states are the expanding minority beachheads in states that haven't previously experienced much diversity. Hispanics, in particular, are influencing a lengthening list of electoral battlegrounds, including many places where neither party has thought much about how to persuade or mobilize them.

Hispanics now represent about one in 12 voters in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, three states whose politics have traditionally revolved around a binary black-white competition. (In picking Charlotte, for their 2012 national convention, Democrats are hoping to influence not only North Carolina but its neighboring states as well.)

Even in Iowa, a closely fought swing state in recent elections, the Hispanic population bumped from 2.8 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2010. That will be a thumb on the scale for Democrats unless Republicans can improve their performance with those voters. "In a state like Iowa, which is already competitive, it makes it even more competitive, and it makes it more nuanced," DuHaime says. "It's not as simple as it once was."

Indeed, the evolving demography will change the electoral calculus, at least somewhat, in the vast majority of states. To assess the potential impact of the demographic change on the 2012 electoral map, National Journal recently performed a series of projections. First, we looked at the average annual increase in the state-by-state minority share of the voting-age population from 2000 through 2010 and projected that forward two years to produce an estimate of each state's total nonwhite population in the 2012 election year. Then we estimated how that population increase would affect the minority share of the vote in each state, using the relationship between the two variables in 2008 as a guide. (We assumed that for each state, the minority share of the vote in 2012 would equal the same proportion of the total minority population as it did in 2008.)

Once we established an estimated minority share of the vote for each state in 2012, we ran two simulations. One projected that Obama would win the same share of minority voters in each state that he did in 2008; the other assumed that he would lose 10 percent of his previous minority share. (That scenario approximates the falloff between the 80 percent of minorities that Obama won in 2008, and the 73 percent that Democrats captured in 2010, according to the exit polls.) In each case, we then calculated the share of the white vote that Obama would need to win each state.

The exercise shows that, compared with 2008, the road would bend toward Obama, at least slightly, just about everywhere. Most important would be the changes in the states atop each side's priority list for 2012.

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.

Several senior Democratic strategists believe that the demographic trends may allow them to expand their target list in 2012. Top analysts on Obama's team are intrigued by Georgia (where the minority share of the adult population has spiked to 41 percent) and Arizona (where it has nearly hit 37 percent).

And though leery of the expense of campaigning in Texas and of the solidly Republican bent of its white population over the past 15 years, these Democrats remain distantly fascinated by the state, where a majority of all adults are minorities and where Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of the population growth since 2000. "Anglos still dominate the [Texas] electorate and will for a while longer, but every election for the rest of your lifetime will have a higher percentage of Latinos and a lower percentage of Anglos than the previous one," says sociologist Stephen Klineberg of Rice University.

Given Obama's difficulties among whites, he has no certainty of reaching even the humble levels with these voters in 2012 that the NJ analysis suggests he will need to win the battleground states. In Virginia and New Jersey, the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial candidates fell short of the numbers Obama would need to win those states under the NJ projection. So did the 2010 Democratic Senate candidate in Florida. In Pennsylvania, losing Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak just barely cleared that bar, although he attracted a level of support from working-class whites that Obama will struggle to match. In 2008, Obama came close to the mere one-fourth of the white vote he might need to win Georgia next time by NJ's scenario, but he fell well short of the 35 percent we projected he would need in Texas and the 47 percent he might need in Arizona.

Like many Republicans, DuHaime is especially dubious that Obama can put states into play in 2012 that he lost in 2008. "In many ways, 2008 was a best-case scenario for Democrats," he says flatly. "If President Obama didn't make the inroads into Georgia and Texas in 2008, he is not going to do it in 2012."

Of course, Obama doesn't need to add those states to his win column; it will be a tactical victory if he simply forces Republicans to spend money and time to defend them. To win the presidency, Republicans must capture states that Obama won in 2008. And few GOP strategists would probably want to bet the White House solely on holding down Obama's vote among whites to the levels the NJ analysis suggest might be required for the GOP to retake enough of those states to reassemble an Electoral College majority.

So even if Obama's support slips among whites, Republicans will face a tough uphill climb if they cannot capture more minority votes. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-based GOP consultant, asserts that Republicans cannot win if they allow Obama to keep two-thirds of the Latino vote he attracted in 2008. The first step toward turning some of that support, he contends, is aggressively pursuing those voters with Spanish-language advertising. "Some Republicans say, 'We do not want to advertise in Spanish because it sends the wrong message,' " he says. "We need to get to them, no matter what channel they are watching, or magazine they are reading." And once Republicans have Hispanics' attention, Curbelo insists, they must make the case that Obama abandoned his 2008 promise to emphasize comprehensive immigration reform. "There is a gaping hole in the president's campaign," he argues.

Democrats doubt that GOP candidates will find many takers for that argument, given that the Republican Party, renouncing the position of George W. Bush, has coalesced almost uniformly against any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The Democrats can be counted on to highlight that hard-line position by forcing a Senate debate on immigration before 2012. "The Republicans don't have an obvious candidate who is really able to erode Obama's strength in this emerging electorate," Rosenberg says.

Given Latinos' growing electoral importance and the GOP's sharp right turn on immigration issues, some senior Democrats privately say they would not be surprised if Republicans try to solve their challenge in a single stroke by picking a Hispanic vice presidential nominee in 2012. In 2008, Obama became the first national leader truly thrust forward by America's changing demography. In 2012, if Republicans look to also surf that wave, first-term Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, could be the next.