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Race and Beyond: Demographics Could Reshape Politics

SOURCE: AP/ Charles Krupa

By 2050 the United States will have no racial majority and the uneven racial and ethnic population growth of the future could very well reshape the course of presidential politics for generations to come.

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To keep myself interested while waiting for the GOP to complete its circular firing squad, I’ve begun to look down the road to the campaigns to come. No, I’m not talking about the November general election. Rather, I’m fascinated by what it will take to be president in the decades to come, when the United States will be a much-changed nation from what it is today.

I’m not alone in envisioning such progressive, future-forward politics. Stefan Hankin, president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington-based public opinion research firm that advises progressive organizations and Democratic politicians, told me recently that “[t]he future for progressive policies is not about 2012 or the next election in two years. It’s about growing the future and seeing where the path leads us.”

The path that Hankin referred to is the fact that within the next 40 years, possibly sooner, the nation will no longer have a majority white population. In a study that his firm released late last year, Hankin noted that the U.S. population will grow by 19 percent over the next two decades, but such growth will not be spread evenly over all racial groups. Whites will increase almost 4 percent, which pales in comparison to the 63 percent growth rates of Latinos, 55 percent growth of Asians, and the 27 percent increase in the number of blacks. By 2050 the Census Bureau estimates that white Americans will be a statistical minority in the nation, with no racial group comprising more than 50 percent of the population.

To be sure, demography isn’t destiny. But the uneven racial and ethnic population growth of the future could very well reshape the course of presidential politics for generations to come.

To test this hypothesis the Lincoln Park report undertook a speculative, albeit credible, racial analysis of projected state-by-state voting patterns. Presidential elections are determined by Electoral College votes—not the popular vote—meaning state-aggregated tallies carry significant weight in choosing which party wins the White House. With the clustering of minority voters in “Blue” Democratic-leaning states and the concentration of white voters in “Red” Republican-leaning states, the Lincoln Park study hints at how future population shifts may affect the race for 270 Electoral College votes needed to elect a president.

They looked at five different scenarios. In Scenario One, which is based on voting results from the 2008 presidential elections, Democrats may enter the 2012 Election Day assured of 165 electoral votes in solid Blue states and another 86 in states that lean Blue. With 91 electoral votes in swing states, winning in Ohio and Virginia (and picking up Red-leaning North Carolina) were the keys to President Obama’s 2008 victory.

Assuming this pattern holds through to 2024 and 2032, the changing demographic profile strongly favors Democratic candidates. Indeed, by 2032 a generic Democratic nominee has enough to get elected just by appealing to the base and leaning Democratic states alone.

scenario 1

In Scenario 2 researchers speculated what would happen if Democratic support among Latino voters dropped by an arbitrary 10 points from 2008 levels. The race would tighten somewhat. But over time the tremendous support of Latino voters for Democrats greatly disadvantages Republicans. Once again, the core base and leaning Democratic states nearly carry the day by themselves.

demographic scenario 2

In Scenarios 3 and 4 the researchers wondered what might happen with increased white support for Democrats. It’s interesting to note here that no Democratic presidential candidate has garnered the majority of white voters since President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. But it doesn’t require a majority of the white vote to give Democrats an insurmountable edge.

In Scenario 3 (no chart) all a Democratic candidate needs is a mere 2 percent gain nationally among white voters, along with continued minority support, to create another landslide situation.

“The result of the model with constant Hispanic/Latino support and increased white support was so overwhelming that it does not merit a detailed exploration,” the report stated in dismissing the need to chart Scenario 3. “Base Democratic states alone were projected to account for 240 electoral votes in 2024 and 254 votes in 2032, while combined Base and Lean Republican states account for only 153 and 141 votes respectively.”

In Scenario 4 a 2 percent gain in white voters for Democrats combined with a 10 percent Latino decline offers what the researchers termed “an interesting electoral choice” for Democrats. The increase of white voters boosts the short-term viability for a Democratic candidate, but has negative long-term consequences. Specifically, this choice would have Democrats relying heavily on Rust Belt states, which aren’t growing as fast as the rest of the country.

demographics scenario 4

Finally, Scenario 5 explains what would happen if Republicans increase support among Latinos by 10 percent, blacks by 10 percent, and white voters by 2 percent. “If Republicans can achieve these gains across racial/ethnic groups, the Electoral College map becomes much more manageable” for Republican presidential aspirants, the report said.

demographics scenario 5

Hankin is more blunt about it. “It’s not about the Republicans winning a majority of any of these (racial and ethnic) groups’ votes,” he told me. “They just have to cut into the majorities that Democrats enjoy. If they can get 10 to 20 percent, then they’re back in the game.”

My colleagues Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin believe the demographic struggle is already shaping presidential politics. In a fascinating paper, "The Path to 270: Demographics versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election," they argue that the outcome of the current election will reflect the demographic changes buffeting the nation.

On the one side is the growing and Democratic-favoring “communities of color, single and highly educated women, Millennial generation voters [defined by Pew as those adults born 1981 or after], secular voters and educated whites living in more urbanized states or more urbanized parts of states.”

And on the opposing side, they write, is the shrinking and Republican-supporting “coalition of older, whiter, more rural and evangelical voters . . . [who are] becoming more geographically concentrated and less important to the overall political landscape of the country.”

Of course, I have no clue about the personalities or issues that will be in play in the presidential campaigns of 2024 or 2032. But I’m convinced whoever is running is unlikely to engage in the nasty, race-baiting tactics that some of the conservative wannabes are currently employing. I feel fairly certain about this because the inevitable march of demographic change that’s ongoing in the United States suggests that the future electorate won’t reward a candidate who sows racial animosity in an increasingly diverse America.

If I’m right then it raises a question that bears asking today of the Republican establishment that so desperately wants to win back the White House: If sweeping racial and demographic change is washing over the nation, why do you tolerate your leading candidates’ backward-looking, divisive, and race-baiting campaigns? Don’t you realize that such behavior threatens the future survival of the GOP?

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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