Political Demographic Trends Brighter for Democrats

Though long-term impact is hard to gauge, experts say, the effects of such trends are likely to be felt in state legislatures and governorships.
by | April 11, 2012

Current population and voting trends appear to favor Democrats for the foreseeable future, demographic experts said during a discussion at the Bipartisan Policy Center Wednesday, but they acknowledged that projecting long-term political behaviors is difficult.

The growing minority vote (which leans heavily Democratic), the shift of white college graduates from red to blue and the shrinking white working class (which traditionally votes Republican) are good omens for the left, said Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for Real Clear Politics, said he largely agreed with Teixeira’s analysis, although he sees room for the GOP to make gains down the road.

Teixeira and Trende told Governing that however these trends play out on the federal level, the effects are likely to be felt in state legislatures and governorships. The 2010 midterm elections, in which Republicans gained 69 seats in Congress and nearly 700 seats in statehouses nationwide, are the latest example of that correlation.

"It could have a huge impact,” Trende said. “The evidence definitely suggests that state politics follow the national trends.”

Teixeira concurred, with the caveat that state politics have their own peculiarities (such as the gerrymandering of state legislative districts) that distinguish them from national elections.

“These trends have got to filter down in some ways,” he said. “This will have a big effect.”

The increasing minority vote (led largely by the budding Hispanic population) framed Teixeira’s rosy forecast, based on population data and historic exit polls, for the Democrats. Minorities’ share of the overall voting population has inclined from 15 percent in 1988 to 26 percent in 2008. That electorate has consistently voted more than 70 percent for the Democrats in the last decade, reaching a peak of 80 percent in 2008.

Long-range projections expect minority population to only grow in the coming decades. The Census Bureau predicts Hispanics will jump from 16 percent of the American population in 2010 to 30 percent in 2050. Over the same period, whites are projected to drop from 65 percent to 46 percent.

Democrats are also making gains with white college graduates. Republicans still hold a slim advantage, but that difference has shrunk from 20 percent in 1988 to 4 percent in 2008. Like minorities, white college graduates as a share of the voting population have grown by 4 percent since 1988 and are expected to continue to do so.

Meanwhile, voters from the white working class (some college or less) are slowly disappearing. Their share of the voting population has declined by 15 percent from 1988 to 2008. That block is staunchly Republican with the GOP commanding a 20-percent advantage on average.

Rounding out the good news for Democrats is the emerging millennial generation. Young adults only slightly favored Democrats in 2000 (48 percent to 46 percent), but the gap widened to 66 percent to 32 percent in 2008. That population is expected to increase from 46 million eligible voters in 2008 to 90 million in 2020. Not coincidentally, the millenial generation is also expected to be more diverse.

Looking at some key battleground states, as Teixeira did in his presentation, illustrates how these trends could play out at the state level.

In Ohio, presidential candidate then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ili., decimated challenger Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., among minority voters with an 83-16 advantage. Minorities are expected to add at least 1 percent to their share of the voting population in 2012. Obama also lost by only one point (49-50) among white college graduates and their share is expected to grow by 2 percent. White working class voters were firmly behind McCain (54-44 in his favor), but their share is projected to drop by 3 percent.

In Pennsylvania, minorities voted for Obama by an 86-13 margin and their voting share should increase by 2 percent. White college graduates favored the president-elect, 52-47, and their share is expected to grow by 3 percent. Once again, white working class voters solidly backed McCain (57-42), but their share could fall by up to 5 percent.

Nevada, Florida and Virginia (all of which went for Obama in 2008 and whose demographics are expected to shift in his favor in 2012) follow the same trend, according to Teixeira’s analysis.

It is noteworthy, however, that Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia have GOP majorities in their state legislatures and a Republican in the governor’s house. That fact, Trende said, reflects the difficulty in translating demographic projections to real-world politics. While population trends might suggest future gains for Democrats, don’t expect a sudden shift in majority control. “These things tend to seek equilibrium,” he said.

Generally, Trende acknowledged that Teixeira’s analysis was sound. He did, however, find a few bright spots for the right.

The Pew Research Center found that migration out of Mexico (the vast majority of which comes to the United States) declined from more than 1 million people in 2006 to 404,000 in 2010. Over the same period, migration into Mexico (again, more than 90 percent of which comes from America) stayed more steady, falling from 474,000 in 2006 to 319,000 in 2010. Those figures could impact projections on the growth of the Hispanic vote.

Trende also pointed to exit poll data that suggests Hispanic voters are more likely to vote for Republicans if they receive a higher income -- much more so than African-Americans, although less frequently than whites. He theorized that, if the economic well-being of Hispanics were to improve in the coming years, a shift to the right could occur.

Regardless, both Trende and Teixeira recognized that demographic data tells only part of the political story. Party platforms and economic outlook also factor heavily into voters’ decisions.

“There is no guarantee that demographic trends will automatically lead to dividends. There is this thing called governance,” Teixeira said. “Parties always have to deliver. Elections are always contested.”

Trende pointed again to the 2010 midterm elections, which came right on the heels of Obama’s sweeping 2008 victory, as evidence that policymaking is as influential on election outcomes as more entrenched variables like ethnicity and age.

“Once you get into power, you have to start picking and choosing what you’re going to do,” Trende said. “You’re inevitably going to alienate somebody.”

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State Elections

Having a majority of seats in play in a year when many states have newly-drawn districts could greatly change the composition of statehouses. Will Republican state legislators be able to hold and extend their reach? Could Democrats regain some of the losses handed to them in 2010? Governing’s team of writers and contributors will monitor developments all the way up to Election Day and beyond.

Click a state in the above map to display current breakdowns for each state legislature.

 
 
 
 
 

Information current as of January 2012

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