Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A complex set of demographic factors are at play in this year’s presidential election, but most them are working against the GOP.
We know that the racial identity of the average American is changing, and with this demographic shift comes monumental political consequences. We already witnessed the effects of this in the 2008 presidential election, for example, when young and minority voters carried Barack Obama to victory. That year, it seemed, a switch flipped in favor of the Democratic party. And if voting preferences and turnout trends continue as they have been in the past seveal elections, America’s increasingly diverse electorate isn’t going to make it easy to flip this switch back.
That’s according to a comprehensive new report put together by the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Center for American Progress. In it, authors Ruy Teixeira, Rob Griffin, and William Frey simulate six possible scenarios based on past voting patterns and project a range of outcomes for the presidential election this year, and subsequent ones through 2032.
“If nothing changes, in terms of party strategies and party appeals, I think it’s a fair statement to say...that [demography] favors the Democrats,” Teixeira said at a panel discussion about the report this week. “What it means is that all else cannot remain equal, because I don’t really believe that the parties are going to remain static. Demography is not destiny in the sense that it pre-ordains certain kinds of outcomes. It pre-ordains certain kinds of shifts in strategy.”
Trends that help and hurt the Democrats
The electorate that voted for President Obama in 2012 looked significantly different from the one that elected George W. Bush for his first term at the beginning of the century. In 2012, the share of minorities among eligible voters was 29 percent, up from 23 percent in 2000 (above). If that doesn’t seem like a significant difference, consider this: In 2000, only eight states and the District of Columbia had higher than a 30 percent share of minority voters; In 2012, the number of such states grew to 17 (plus D.C.). With each election year, non-white political clout is strengthening, in some states more than others.
The voter turnout rate among minorities also jumped up in the last two elections. During the 2012 election, black voter turnout was actually higher than white turnout for the first time in history (pictured above). Latinos and Asians also came out to vote at higher levels in the last two presidential elections than in any other since 1992. Minorities generally tend to vote for Democrats, so higher turnout is generally beneficial for them.
One trend that’s been working against the Democrats is that the country’s white population has been growing older. This is good news for Republicans because older, white Americans are generally more likely to vote, and vote conservative. Plus, they still remain the dominant voting bloc in most states.
So who will win in 2016?
This election year, a complex set of demographic factors are at play. Latino voters, in particular, have reached record high numbers. Single women, too, may have considerable political sway this time around. On the flip side, the fact that many low-income Americans are not feeling the economic recovery could depress voter enthusiasm, as Anna Greenberg, a political consultant at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, noted.
These factors are important to keep in mind while looking at the six hypothetical scenarios below, which the researchers designed to estimate the direction of the popular and the electoral college votes in this election:
- Scenarios A, B, and C assume that voters of each age group, race, and state will show roughly the same turnout rates and partisan preferences as they did in 2012, 2008, and 2004, respectively.
The next three are modifications of scenario A:
- Scenario D, or the “maximum minority turnout” scenario assumes that Hispanics and Asians will turn out to vote at the same rate as their white counterparts did in 2012.
- Scenario E assumes that a higher share of Hispanics, Asians, and other “new minorities” will support the GOP within all age groups and states than they did in 2012.
- Scenario F is what Brookings’ Frey, who co-authored the report, calls the “Donald Trump Dream” scenario. In this one, a higher share of white voters will support the Republican candidate than they did in 2012.
The graph below shows the resulting differences in the share of popular votes between the two parties for each of the above scenarios in the 2016 presidential election. The “Donald Trump Dream”—scenario F— is the only one that would lead to a clear Republican win in 2016. Even scenario C, which mirrors the voting patterns of the 2004 election Bush won, doesn’t favor the GOP here. That said, Democrats would win the popular vote in this scenario by only a hair—the margin of victory here would be even lower than what it was for Bush in 2000.
And here are the electoral college vote tallies generated by the simulation for each scenario, alongside maps showing red, blue, and swing states:
What’s interesting here is that in scenario C, Republicans—who lose the popular vote—win the electoral college vote. (This mirrors Bush’s win in 2000.) Electoral college vote tallies for all other scenarios show the same outcomes as those projected for the popular votes.
Where you can really see the effect of America’s shifting demographics is the change in swing states. Take scenario A, for example, in which Americans vote in exactly the same way they did in the last election. Nevada, which was a swing state in 2012, now turns blue. Georgia, which has traditionally been red, becomes a swing state. That Asian and Latino populations are fanning inwards from traditional immigrant hubs along the coast, and that the black population is migrating to the South to opportunity-rich cities like Atlanta, play a role in these outcomes.
Of course, a Republican win is definitely conceivable in 2016 and future elections. After all, whatever Trump is doing certainly seems to be working to get out the white vote, at least in the primaries. But alienating minority workers is likely not going to be a longterm solution for the GOP, Frey says. Because even the edge Republicans have in their most favorable scenario—the “Donald Trump’s Dream” or scenario F—will shrink and eventually disappear at some point over the next two decades. Frey estimates that even in scenario F, the popular vote will flip in favor of Democrats by the 2028 election and the electoral college vote will be theirs by 2032.
“Demographic change is going to have large effects on elections going forward,” Teixeira concluded at the report’s presentation Thursday. “I think the way scenarios play out suggest that a one-dimensional strategy on the part of either party is going to produce some problems. So it shouldn’t be ‘either-or’… it should be ‘both-and.’”