If there is one thing that is true in American politics it is that demography does not equal destiny. If that were true then the Reagan Revolution of 1980, fueled on the backs of an influx of conservative, European and Catholic white voters, would have never ended. Ditto with the 94 GOP Revolution, fueled on the backs of working class whites and evangelical christians. The 2008 coalition that elected Obama, full of moderate college voters and historic turnout among minorities would also have never ended. But they all have. American politics is cyclical and so is demographics.
A lot has been made recently about demographics from Republican and Democratic pollsters. Multiple prominent Democratic pollsters, including James Carville, Mark Halperin, Ruy Teixiera and Mark Mellman, see a demographic shift occurring that will benefit Democrats in the coming decades. But Republicans and strategists are quick to point the problems with this assumption. So what exactly are Democratic pollsters arguing is and will happen exactly? And what are the flaws Republicans and conservative strategists see in their theory.
Democratic pollsters Ruy Teixiera and Mark Halperin have since 2006 argued that a demographic shift in the US is underway. This demographic shift is turning the US from being majority white to majority-minority white. And in that they see a massive advantage for Democrats. Hispanics went 68% for the president in 2008 and blacks went with him by 97%. More than that, in 2008 both Hispanics and blacks grew their total share of the electorate by a significant margin. Teixiera and Halperin hypothesize that in 2012 the non-white vote share of the electorate will grow by 2% and equal 26% of the total electorate. This will mainly be due to growth in the Hispanic population. And in later elections this cycle is only going to accelerate.
Republicans and conservative strategists however have ready counter-arguments for the short-term and long-term. First in the short-term conservative strategists point out that the majority of minority turnout in 2008 was due to growth in the African-American vote. According to 2008 exit polls 13% of the electorate was black. That compares with the 2010 census data that finds they only make up 11-12% of the total populace. For blacks to turn out in such massive numbers for the president again (after the glow of electing a minority president has faded), after economic conditions have gotten even worse, is a stretch. Second, a growth in the Hispanic population nationwide does not correlate with an automatic growth in the share of the voting public. In 1992 the Hispanic share of the electorate actually shrunk from 1988. And while the Hispanic share of the vote increased 4% in 2004 from 2000 for most of the decade the Hispanic share of the vote has been stagnant. In 2006 it shrunk to 7.94% of the voting electorate and in 08 was a mere 8.38% (.14% over 2004). Yet in 2010 they were around 8%. So the Hispanic vote has not increased in relation to their population growth. So this means that an increase in the non-white share of the vote is by no means a sure thing. Third, Democrats are consistently losing the white working class vote, and badly. In 2004 Bush won 58% of this voting bloc (Kerry 41%) and even when Republicans were getting drubbed in 2006 and 2008 they still managed to carry this voting bloc. In 2010 they won this group by a massive 30% (even Reagan did not do as well as this). So while the president can sacrifice some of these voters to pursue minorities he cannot suffer a 30% loss among them. And that brings us to the last short-term argument against Texiera’s and Halperin’s theme. The interests of working class and upscale whites and minorities are widely divergent. That means in essence the president could be pursuing a zero-sum game. For every minority vote he gets he could turn off white and upscale white voters. All these short-term arguments have factual grounding and are quite valid.
In the long-term GOP strategists point to the fact the Hispanic share of the vote is not a lock for Democrats. Hispanics could fit into the GOP’s emphasis on family and tradition even if they lean-to the left economically. The GOP’s emphasis on law and order could also play well with them. Second, a continuous growth in the Hispanic share of the populace (it is unsure if it will ever correlate with a growth in their share of the electorate) is not assured. As many illegals that are coming into the US many are also returning to Mexico. Th weakness of the US economy, its current political climate and Mexico’s modernizing economy are influencing this somewhat. Finally, Republicans point out that demographics is not destiny. There are many more numerous examples of demographic hopes failing to materialize for permanent political majorities. Probably the closest to a political majority the US will ever see would be the Democratic controlled House from 54-94. But even that fell apart.
While Democratic strategists see a trend line in demographics that favor their party Republicans and conservatives see more question marks then answers. Both in the short and long-term. And in truth, Republicans are probably right. Southern whites use to be consistently Democratic until 1968. Now they are consistently Republican. Urban and suburban Northeasterners used to be solid moderate Republicans. Now many are stalwart liberals. And this is just among the white demographic. Just as the white demographic is not monolithic neither is the Hispanic vote. Hispanics in different areas of the country do and will likely place different levels of emphasis on issues. As their vote share increases in proportion to the overall electorate they will also likely start looking at individual issues differently then they do today.
So while it sounds good for Democratic strategists to argue that demographics equals destiny and favors their party the truth is somewhere in the middle. Hispanics will likely lean Democratic for some time to come. But as Democrats court them white working class and upscale voters are even more likely to find a permanent home in the GOP. Also, how much or if Hispanic vote share increases consistently is also an open question. Furthermore, if their vote share increases will they look at local, state and federal issues in the same light. Or like many white American voters will they take slightly more nuanced views over time? And the best answer to all these questions is that American politics is cyclical. Majorites come and go as do political leaders. But the volatile and swing nature of the American electorate always remains.