In terms of the political demographics of the country two theories currently rule. The first is that the basis for a GOP majority, predominantly older and rural whites, will fade, and that Democrats are on the rise due to the growth of single women in urban areas of the country and minorities, especially Hispanics. The second is much more nuanced and essentially argues against the first theory and says our elections will continue to be competitive for decades to come.
Proponents of the first theory point to the composition of the GOP as being unsustainable for a majority well into the future. Rural and older white voters, while increasingly joining the ranks of the GOP, are also increasingly dying out as their generation ebbs. Meanwhile, the more swing baby-boomers and following generations are replacing them in voting power and are not nearly as lock-step Republican.
Demographic movement also illustrates why the GOP may be in trouble. More younger and middle-aged voters are starting to consolidate in major metro areas. These areas, already liberal, tend to have a more tolerable view of activist government and over time these voters tend to consistently vote Democratic or at least most of the time. Meanwhile, growth in the swing suburbs was low, in the conservative exurbs stagnant and in rural areas it shrunk.
According to a 2010 survey of Census data done by the Brooking Institute’s William H. Frey, a demographer, growth in 2010 in urban areas and dense suburbs eclipsed that of GOP leaning exurbs. For Democrats and the left this bodes well. In 2008 Obama won 21 of the 25 largest metro areas in the country and the urban vote made up 30% of the 2008 electorate. And this lopsided margin helped Obama win easily despite losing the majority of the 21% of the rural vote.
Ruy Texieria, a political demographer and one who I write about often has stated on numerous occasions the GOP is destined to become a minority party as the share of the minority vote continues to grow and they stay Democratic in their political leanings. Yet he also sees Democrats emerging as a dominant force in the once swing-suburban areas of the country. These areas tend to be filled with fiscally conservative but socially moderate, well-educated and affluent families. In 2008 Texiera cites the GOP lost the “first tier” of suburbia, the more densely packed suburbs, yet won the “second tier,” exurbs and beyond.
Combine these two factors with the “Increasing extremism” of the GOP and proponents of Theory 1 (that is what we will call it) argue the GOP majority will not last. Keep in mind however many of these same demographers back in 2004 argued the GOP majority crafted by Bush of suburban whites, affluent voters, rural evangelical voters, and 40% of Hispanics ensured the GOP another decade of dominance. Well we all know how that turned out.
Indeed the NY Times appears to have jumped on the bandwagon. In an article titled “The Impermanent Republican Majority,” author Timothy Egan argues that “For Democrats, the geography of tomorrow is the urban renaissance – a boundary that now includes big parts of suburbia.” But is this really the case? Afterall, many suburbs in 2010 voted Republican after backing Obama in 2008. In fact, several large urban areas, predominantly in fast growing GOP Texas, voted Republican and saw an increase in growth in the exurbs from the 2000-2010 censuses.
This is where Theory 2 comes in. Theory 2 sees big flaws in assuming the GOP majority as it is currently composed will fade soon and even if it does the GOP cannot forge a new majority coalition over time.
Just take a look at the Hispanic population. Hispanics have grown significantly as a share of the population since 2000 but their electoral voting power has been stagnant since 2004 around 8%. Yet the Census also revealed that Hispanic immigration, legal and illegal, has slowed to a crawl, likely due to the recession, and that many Hispanics have a religious affiliation.
Indeed, there is polling data that shows that as Hispanics better assimilate into US culture through older second and third generation families they tend to behave more like whites on issues. They even identify as “White” in surveys and filling out job applications. This trend will continue to be accentuated even more as immigration from down south declines and birth rates among Hispanic-Americans increase. Between 2000 and 2010 only 4.2 million Hispanics immigrated into the US while over 7.2 million were born here. A more assimilated and culturally similar Hispanic population which becomes more affluent over time and spreads out into suburbs across the country could be good for the GOP in the long run. Especially as controversial issues such as illegal immigration fade.
Wide assumptions are also made that the current Democratic coalition will not only hold over time but continue to grow. This is assuming quite a lot. In many metro areas the core of the Democratic Party’s power beyond minorities is young, unmarried college educated women and to a lesser extent men. Yet in American politics families have divided us politically. Married families with kids vote Republican and single men and women vote Democrat while single parents tend to split their votes. Among white families and families that are more traditional the lean right is even heavier.
This chasm has been growing over time and helps explain the growth of the gender gap in American politics. Single women lean left and they tend to be heavily populated in urban areas and the “first tier” of suburbia. This provides Democrats with a solid base of support in both statewide and presidential campaigns to start from in many states. But this also ensures the Democratic party will have a hard time appealing to the diverse interests of an urban base, independent suburban vote and right leaning exurban and swing vote.
Than there is the question about birth and marriage rates. Just because a single man or woman lives in say urban Seattle and currently votes Democratic does not mean they always will. Many tend to be young, meaning their ideological allegiances have not hardened. And consider this, in a Pew survey on marriage and religion over 50% expressed an interest in getting married someday, living in the suburbs and having kids. The American dream is alive and well. The fact that many of these singles have not suggests they are delaying marriage and not deciding to remain single indefinitely. For Democrats that trend could be a problem if families, even just white families, tend to continue to move to the GOP.
Varying birth rates also suggest that Democratic dreams of a hip, liberal urban core may be exaggerated. Progressives and secularists tend to have fewer children than religiously orientated Hispanics, Mormons, evangelicals etc. This means if the younger religiously affiliated generation does not change its political views from its parents than these GOP leaning voters will have a pronounced effect on future elections and if they get married, live in the suburbs or rural areas and have kids that GOP lean could become even more evident.
Lastly, theory 2 ignores the fact that suburban and exurban families are becoming more culturally conservative. Think of blue-collar whites in rural areas and affluent families in the suburbs becoming fiscally conservative in the suburbs and exurbs as state pension debts balloon, taxes threaten to increase and states shed thousands of government jobs. All this also leads to the growth of an even more independently employed and wealthy suburban vote that the GOP can better court with a message of limited and responsible government. Meanwhile urban areas growth will continue to have to come at the expense of voters in higher taxes and more and more services, limiting the growth of a wealthy class.
All these factors point to a future where even if the GOP maintains its current composition of being a largely white, traditional family, evangelical and exurban party it can still thrive well into the near future. The Democratic hope for an enduring majority however rests on long-term and fluid assumptions that may not come to pass and at least cannot be guaranteed. One thing is sure. Elections for the next few cycles will continue to be competitive.
Update: A new Pew Hispanic study released today confirms two trends. More Hispanics left the country than immigrated in and second in majority-white areas of the country Hispanics are far more likely to vote Republican than majority-Hispanic areas.