To close followers of American electoral politics it comes as no surprise Americans are racially polarized. After all, the last Democratic president to carry the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1968 (not even Clinton could) and the last Republican to carry the black vote was not even in office before the turn of the 20th century. But if one looks deeper the widening racial divide in this country has deep political implications for both parties in terms of the way they govern and whether they can create lasting electoral coalitions in Congress.
Lest one doubt my theory consider these few facts. In 2000 whites made up 80% of the electorate. In 2004 they made up 78% of the electorate and in 2008 they only made up 74% of the electorate. Meanwhile minorities grew as a share of the electorate. Democrats have not failed to carry 60% of the minority vote since Hubert Humphrey in 68. So this trend favors Democrats, at least at the presidential level. Electorally this puts certain states in play and many more out of play. For example a majority-white state like Texas (with its growing minority population) remains out of play for Democrats. Yet large states like CA and NY are out of reach for the GOP because of their large minority populations.
Looking at this beyond individual states in presidential races it crystallizes for the GOP the potential danger of pursuing a winning electoral coalition based largely on only white voters. This has been a steadfast tenant of the Romney campaign. It is not without historical backing however. In 2004 George Bush won 57% of whites and won 51.1% of the vote. In 2008 John McCain won 55% of the white vote but barely hit 46% of the popular vote nationally. When Reagan won his first election in 1980 he carried 60% of the white vote and dominated the popular vote. It does not seem out of reach for Romney to court close to 60% of the white vote by winning fiscally populist and socially conservative traditional Democrats to his banner. This would have great impact in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Yet if the minority share of the vote increases from 2008, say to 28% from 26%, which is by no means assured, Romney could win 60% or more of the white vote and still lose if Obama’s share of the minority vote does not drop from 2008. In 2008 the President carried close to 80% of the minority vote. When Republicans such as Reagan and HW. Bush were winning elections whites were a massive majority of the vote. In 1984 they made up 90% of voters. In 88 they made up 85%. Even when Clinton won in 92 and 96 they made up over 80% of the electorate. But changing demographics, as illustrated by the 2010 Census, show the white share of the electorate is likely to drop well into the future.+
Democrats are giddy about what this means. It indicates that Republicans can continue to win significant majorities of the white vote in presidential races and still lose. They are also less able to court minority voters because many partisan GOP voters, older and blue-collar, are more resistant to change and including new groups into their party. Also, many white GOP voters are far more resistant to government programs than many minorities and oppose extending programs to be inclusive of minorities (or just extending any programs). In short, Democrats believe this puts the GOP in something of a demographic squeeze.
The obvious flaws of this analysis aside it does have its merits. If Romney wins a Reaganesque share of the white vote and yet manages to lose the election the consequences for the GOP could be staggering. What would they do, where would they turn? It is obvious the GOP recognizes the issue and they have an extraordinary crop of new minority candidates and politicians ready to help with outreach among minorities. But the base might not cooperate.
But regardless the implications of this view also has consequences for Democrats. In the short-term if the President were to win reelection but with only 40% or slightly less of the white vote where would his mandate to govern come from? How could he sign onto policies preferable to whites and yet not only be beneficial to his minority and increasingly white, single female base? Long-term, where would any Democratic President find a mandate to govern when they continue to badly lose the majority white vote?
Electorally, could they continue to hold onto increasingly white states such as Wisconsin and Michigan with their rural, moderate populations and strong union support full of whites. Could they continue to keep their pockets of support in suburban Philly and Des Moines alive? It would seem to be much harder.
These demographic trends also have implications for Congress, particularly the House of Representatives. If a solid majority of white voters are willing to cast their vote for a Republican president odds are they will back a Republican Congressional candidate? For Democrats this could make it ever and ever harder to create an enduring majority in the House. Even worse for the Democrats is that the creation of new majority-minority districts would pack many of their partisan minority voters into districts where they could have less impact on multiple House races in a state.
This should send a signal to the Democrats as well. If they cannot craft a message of government that retains white support how can they claim to be able to win elections anymore than Republicans can? The obvious answer is they cannot and this shows the double-edged sword of demographic politics. Both sides have much to fear and much to gain from the growing racial and demographic divide in the country.