Democrats are positively giddy that the GOP is on its way to demographic extinction. The reported growth of Hispanics, Asians and other minorities in the 2010 Census indicates the GOP is soon to a party on the out. Minorities have been a lock-step part of the Democratic coalition and in 2008 they gave Democrats almost 80% of their vote. But Democrats would be wise to remember that demographics is not political destiny.
American politics is littered with the corpses of demographic/political coalitions. The GOP coalition of Southern blacks and Northern whites from 1860-1890 is gone. The FDR coalition of Northern urban and working class whites and Southern blacks and whites has disappeared. Most recently the Bush coalition of affluent minorities, Hispanics, and whites has faded. Both parties current coalitions of voters are just as unstable as any of the other coalitions that litter the dustbin of American political history.
The current Democratic demographic coalition mirrors the changing nature of the country. The 2010 Census showed significant growth in the numbers of Hispanics, Asians, single women and urban residents as well as showing a sharp drop for married couples and whites as a total of the population. According to the Census as late as 2050 whites would be less than 50% of the total population. For the GOP this presents a problem. Short of 2004 the GOP has continually failed to win anything close to a majority of the minority vote. Bush’s 10% and 44% showing among blacks and Hispanics was the best they had done among the two groups since 1988. But the GOP has never failed to carry a majority of the white vote since 1968.
For Democrats the changing demographics of the country supposedly ensure that they can stop trying to win a majority of the white vote and just focus on a smaller and smaller percentage of it each election. For example in 2004 John Kerry won 41% of the white vote while Barack Obama won 43% in 2008. However, minorities only made up 22% of the electorate in 2004 and Bush ran rather strongly with them. In 2008 minorities made up 26% of the electorate and Obama performed substantially better with them than Kerry. In fact those minorities gave Obama the election. The growth of minorities is supposed to ensure Democrats a lock on the electoral college for decades to come.
But political coalitions litter the American landscape. In the 40’s nobody expected the FDR coalition to fall apart. Most recently in 2004 Democrats lamented the fact that George Bush’s unusual coalition of socially conservative Hispanics, whites affluent voters and middle class blacks looked likely to last until the end of the decade. By 2006 it was called dead. Similarly, Democratic claims their coalition will endure for decades raises the same skepticism.
Just as all coalitions are somewhat unwieldy the current Democratic coalition is as well. The one advantage the Democrats have with maintaining their coalition going forward is none of them are hostile to activist government. However many of them have different views on issues than the party they consistently vote for. Take Hispanics for example. Many are Democrats and vote that way but on social issues, even fiscal issues, they diverge sharply with the Democratic Party. They also have sharply different views on race relations in the country than blacks do within the party.
Thus the major stumbling block for the current Democratic coalition is the Hispanic vote. The current Democratic coalition relies on a solid majority of Hispanics sticking with the party. It will need them even more going forward. But the 2004 and 2008 elections showed that may not continue to last. In 2004 Bush forged a coalition with Hispanic voters over the very issues they have divisions with the Democratic Party, taxes and social issues. Bush connected with affluent Hispanics worried about taxes. Bush also ardently defended gay marriage and stood against abortion appealing to downscale Hispanics.
In 2008 John McCain could not appeal to Hispanics on social issues. But he did again appeal to affluent Hispanics on taxes and the economy. Here in lies the rub for Democrats with the Hispanic vote. Numerous state exit polls from 2004 and 2008 show that third-generation or Hispanics living in the suburbs voted for Bush or McCain then they did Kerry or Obama.
As Hispanics more fully integrate into US society and thus economically and culturally assimilate better the Democrats current appeal to them may fade. Furthermore current issues that divide the GOP from Hispanics, mainly governmental action and the border, may fade. On taxes Hispanics have shown they are far more willing to act like whites than blacks in terms of their vote.
Hispanics or even Asians views changing over time is not the only reason one should be skeptical of the idea of a solid Democratic majority in the future.
Political parties do not just stand still when demographics or the political context changes. In 2004 the GOP nominated in Florida Cuban-American Mel Martinez for an open Senate seat. When Martinez resigned in 2009 the GOP initially lined up behind moderate Governor Charlie Crist. However as soon as it became clear the party grassroots had lined up behind another Cuban-American, House Speaker Marco Rubio, the party backed him. This paid big dividends in both elections as a solid majority of the Hispanic Cuban-American electorate in Florida backed Martinez and Rubio.
This is not the only change the GOP has made in recent cycles. In two majority-minority Hispanic districts in Texas due to the 2010 election both are represented by Republicans. In Nevada and New Mexico the GOP nominated and saw Hispanic Governors Brian Sandoval (NV) and Susana Martinez (NM) win their races easily.
Faces like these are being elevated by the party establishment as the harbingers of the GOP’s future. The GOP is also elevating female candidates. Washington GOP Congresswoman Cathy McMorris is moving up in the party’s echelon and they continue to have her speak for the GOP on women’s issues. In Utah’s 4th Congressional District the GOP nominated its first ever Mormon, black female candidate, Mia Love.
All those shows the GOP is not standing still nor not reacting to the changing demographics of the country. The GOP is not just taking women’s related issues to heart but also minority related issues. Until President Obama’s recent Executive Order ending deportations for illegals who are between 16-30 (with other requirements), Florida Senator Marco Rubio was working on a similar measure. Considering how dependent the modern Democratic Party has become on minority votes there is no doubt the Democrats did it to upend Rubio’s plans.
The Democratic coalition is also ripe with internal divisions. Some of these divisions have already led to mass defections from the party. White working class voters used to be a significant chunk of the Democratic Party’s base. But as the party moved further away from them ideologically to cater to other interests these voters have largely turned to the GOP.
Ideologically both parties are closer to ideological cohesiveness then ever before. But that does not mean their supporters are issue-wise. Democrats continue to anger AFL-CIO and other manufacturing/construction union members (not leadership however) on their destructive environmental policies. Unionized oil and coal workers, largely white, are starting to leave the party as well over these policies. Democrats insistence on providing contraception to every women, a feminist movement dream, has riled socially conservative Hispanics. Public sector unions demanding of increased benefits for their work and the president’s acceptance of more Stimulus spending, largely targeted to these unions, has started to rankle moderate, fiscally conservative voters in the suburbs.
Political parties can usually ride these divisions with the power of incumbency. George Bush’s coalition had divisions all the way back to 2002 but he added to his coalition to 2004. But at some point the parties lose the incumbent in the White House and the divisions show. The GOP in 2008 showed deep divisions on economic issues and even social issues.
Perhaps the best reason to doubt Democratic dreams about a lasting electoral majority is that the future is always in flux. Nobody can say what outside events will affect voters views and ideologies. In 2001 9/11 turned Americas away from a policeman foreign policy to an active defender of liberty. In 2008 the economic collapse persuaded many fiscally conservative voters to back government intervention and spending on the economy. Who is to say something like these events cannot happen again?
Consider the following thought experiment. In 2013 Barack Obama remains president but Republicans control both chamber of Congress. Then the EU collapses and China goes into a recession. The economic ramifications hit the US’s shores. China decides to take the opportunity to call in US debt and the president refuses. Republicans claim their worries about the debt were justified. The US economic nose-dives into a second deep recession. How are voters to react to this in the 2014 midterms and beyond?
Democrats dream of a majority-minority country and a control of government that is permanent. After all, political parties exist to win. But demographics is but one part of politics and elections. Cultural, social, economic, political party and the prevalent issues all also play into politics and elections. They would be wise to remember this important factoid and not just count on demographics to usher in a Democratic majority for decades to come.