The New Political Demography

by: Chris Bowers

Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 15:39


Ruy Teixeira of The Emerging Demographic Majority fame, has produced a must-read new study on the changing demographic and attitudinal changes in America. The report was produced for the Center for American Progress, and the complete 51 page report can be read here (PDF).  I will be talking about this study for a while, but today I will only focus on the first third of the report: the new political demographics.  In the extended entry, quoting extensively from Teixeira's work and tying that into six long-running thesis statements of my own:
  • The white working class is no longer the dominant swing vote
  • The white working class isn't even a swing vote, as Dukakis, Gore, Kerry and Obama performed the same with that group.
  • America will no longer be a majority white Christian nation by 2016
  • All demographic growth is with Democrats
  • The previous four statements signal the end of the culture wars
  • The previous five statements point to a vastly increased Democratic base vote.
It is a lot of ground to cover for one blog post, but I invite you to join me in the extended entry. I think this stuff is a lot of fun, not to mention very hopeful.
Chris Bowers :: The New Political Demography
White Working Class No Longer Dominant Swing Vote
Over the last twenty years, the share of the white working class vote in the electorate (defined in the study as whites without a four year degree), has declined by 15%, and been replaced entirely by minorities and college education whites.

Consider some of the components of the new demography. Between 1988 and 2008, the minority share of voters in presidential elections has risen by 11 percentage points, while the share of increasingly progressive white college graduate voters has risen by four points. But the share of white-working class voters, who have remained conserva¬tive in their orientation, has plummeted by 15 points

This is the End of Bubba Dominance thesis, where socially conservative, working-class whites simply no longer make up a large enough percentage of the population to be the dominant swing voter group. This passage puts that thesis in stark relief, as 15% of the electorate that was once white working class has been entirely replaced with minorities and creative class whites. Most Republicans, and even many Democrats, are unaware of just how stark the decline in white working class voter strength has been, but hopefully this will open up their eyes.

White Working Class Doesn't Even Swing
No matter how much we trash candidates like Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Party of this decade performs just as poorly among working class whites as did Dukakis (see my previous writing on this (see here and here).  As such, we are not winning primarily due to some great improvement in our strategy, infrastructure, messaging, or candidates, we are just winning because the demographics of the electorate shifted in our favor. Gore, Obama and Dukakis performed almost identically among the white working class, and Kerry wasn't that far behind:

In 2008, Obama lost the white working class by a very large 18 point margin, somewhat better than Kerry's 23-point deficit in 2004 but actually a little worse than Al Gore's 17-point deficit in 2000. Moreover, going back to 1988 progressives' continuing difficul¬ties with the white working class are thrown into stark relief. In that year, the progres¬sive deficit among the white working class and white college graduates was identical: 20 points. This year, the respective deficits were 18 points and four points. Thus, Obama only improved over Dukakis by two points among white, working-class voters, but by 16 points among white college graduates.

We like to think that candidates or messaging can reshape the political environment. Perhaps they can to some degree, but these underlying demographic trends are much more important.  Over the last 20 years, there were two major political developments in America: first, Republican cultural backlash messaging to the white working class pissed off all the growth demographics in America and, second, Republicans finally got control of the entire country and destroyed it.  The end result is a Democratic trifecta larger than any Republicans have held in 80 years.  Our infrastructure and strategic improvements are certainly important, but they are dwarfed in impact by the two developments listed in the previous sentence.

No longer a white Christian nation
It is not just the white working class that is declining, either.  Regarding my old "maybe it is a battle of civilizations" thesis, check out this conservative nightmare that is about to come to pass. White Christians are on the brink of no longer being a majority in America:

By the election of 2016, it is likely that the United States will no longer be a majority white Christian nation.

Actually, I think this will happen before 2016. In 2008, whites made up about 66% of the population, and 23% of whites did not self-identify as Christian. that puts us at only a 51% white Christian nation as of last year.  Perhaps the 4% of whites who refused to state their religious in the survey I just linked deflate the overall number of white Christians. However, even if 80% the white "don't knows" are allocated according to the percentage of other respondents, last years the country was only 53% white Christian. Further, given the age demographics in the recent omnibus religious survey, it is highly likely that whites under the age of 18 are less Christian than whites over the age of 18, thus pushing the current percentage of white Christians in America down to 52%.

All the growth is with Democrats
It is also worth noting that the direction of growth in the non-white and / or non-Christian coalition I have often written about has shifted. In the 1990's, the dominant demographic trend was the rise of non-Christians. During that decade, self-identified non-Christians increased their share of the population by 9%, over a period when the American population grew up 13%.  Now, however, the rise of non-Christians has slowed dramatically, and the rise of minorities in America has become the dominant demographic trend:

One of the most important, if not the most important, is the rise of minorities....

More generally, minorities have grown by 19 percent in this decade, accounting for more than four-fifths of U.S. population growth.

Given that non-whites broke 79%-18% for Obama, or more than 4-1, for this group to make up 80% of the population growth in America is a doomsday scenario for Republicans. Considering that non-Christians "only" went 73%-25% for Obama, or just under 3-1, having non-Christians replaced as the dominant growth demographic in America is actually bad news for Republicans. That's kind of mind-blowing.

The End of the Culture Wars
With the white Christian majority in America rapidly dwindling, and with socially conservative whites undergoing a crash in their share of the electorate, it will signal the end of the culture wars:

Culture wars issues, which so conspicuously failed to move many voters in the last couple of elections, will lose even more force in years to come.

Instead, we will see more attention paid to issues such as health care, energy and education, where government has a positive role to play. The public holds distinctly progressive views in each of these areas, backing health care for all, a transition to clean energy and build¬ing a 21st-century education system, including a major infusion of resources to improve kindergarten-through-12th grade education and college access. In each of these areas, ongoing demographic change is likely to intensify the public's commitment to progressive goals, since rising demographic groups tend to be especially supportive.

It seems highly unlikely that conservatives will be able to win national elections on cultural supremacist backlash messaging anymore. They succeeded politically with such messaging from 1968-2004, albeit with gradually dwindling success (in 2004, Kerry almost won using the old McGovern coalition). The culture wars were always targeted at the white working class, and now the white working class is shrinking faster than any other demographic in the electorate.

Vastly Increased Democratic Swing State Bases
The implications of these changes for swing states are nothing short of eye-popping:

And so it went across key swing states. In Nevada, Obama carried the Las Vegas metro by 19 points, which was 14 points better Kerry in 2004 and 35 points better than Michael Dukakis in 1988. In Florida, Obama carried the Orlando metropolitan area in the I-4 cor¬ridor by nine points, a 17-point gain over 2004 and an amazing 48 point shift since 1988. In Virginia, Obama dominated the state's northern suburbs across the Potomac River from the District of Columbia by 19 points-15 points better than Kerry and 38 points better than Dukakis. There are many other examples, but the story is the same from state to state: where America is growing, progressives are gaining strength and gaining it fast.

Obama's gains over Kerry are very impressive, but it is just as impressive that Kerry performed between 20-30% better than Dukakis in these key swing areas. In other words, Democrats are starting from a much, much higher base in swing states than during the 1980's and 1990's. This has major implications for our continuing obsession with running New Democrats for President, given that groups like the New Dems were formed in the 1980's and 1990's to deal with electoral problems facing Democrats during those times. The good news is that demographic shifts have largely resolved those old problems.

***

A lot of Republicans mocked Teixeira's work after the 2002 elections, but I wonder who is laughing now.  Time has proven his thesis of an Emerging Democratic Majority correct, and my work is heavily indebted to his.  Looking at these new numbers makes feel all warm and tingly.


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I wonder how much (4.00 / 5)
of this (maybe contra Chris--or maybe agreeing, I can't quite tell) is because the Democrats have become such a blandly centrist party. So not only do we have these demographic shifts, but a political landscape in which our major choice is between a centrist party and a far-right party.

The centrist party is just gonna capture more votes, especially once people realize that it is a centrist party. (Which explains the viciousness of the message wars, and the primacy of the Blue Dog-type Dems: the right feel they must portray the Democratic party as extreme and the Beltway Democrats feel they must prove their centrism.) There's nowhere else for the left to go.

Actually, that was my first question upon reading this: at what point does the Democratic Party splinter down some caucus line? The Blue Dog Party and the Progressive Party, or whatever. Because I just can't see a better way for the rational conservative movement in this country to reconstitute itself then by joining the Democratic Party's conservative wing. Well, except as far as the rational right goes, they're probably already members.


This seems like the most likely scenario to me (4.00 / 4)
The base of the Republican Party is small, ignorant, and crazy. Eventually, they'll fade away. The corporate money that has held the Repubs together will switch to the Blue Dogs and the New Dems so the important election will become the Democratic primary. Eventually then, I expect the Democratic Party will split into two parties.

[ Parent ]
Exactly (0.00 / 0)
The Republicans will do what they need to do to survive.  Currently, the base is suicidially sticking with Limbaugh and Palin.  But that won't last long - eventually, the Republican party will soften its stance on immigration, etc., and start reeling in morally conservative Hispanics and blacks, and libertarian atheists, and finding new points of conflict (for example, the enormous deficits can be a scare issue to start bringing in the youth vote).

If the Republican party could de-radicalize and de-racialize, they could form a powerful alliance with blue dogs. Moderate Republicans will develop their own powerful bloc. Then we will have the ultimate triumph of Broderism.

The demographics don't show so much the rise of progressives, as the decline of the politics of working class resentment.  


[ Parent ]
nice post! (4.00 / 3)
I love this stuff. On a number of levels.

Split (4.00 / 2)
Never underestimate the ability of the Democratic party to split into factions and render itself ineffective.

Let's not forget the long alliance with the Dixiecrats who had very little in common with the traditional immigrant/labor base of the Northeast and Midwest industrial areas.

We see a foreshadowing of the same thing these days with the blue dogs who are still working on a coherent viewpoint, but when the find it may be a real impediment to progressive legislation.

Lastly, even if the party can remain ideologically cohesive Dems are prone to get mired in local corruption and abuse of political power. One only has to think back to the bosses of New York, Chicago, Philly, etc.

The GOP goes after big business for kickbacks and revolving door paybacks, the Dems go after local contractors.

With the demise of any sort of muckraking capability (or desire) by newspapers and broadcast media the ability to uncover this sort of misbehavior is less than it has been anytime in the past 90 years. The blogosphere has not taken up the challenge of filling the gap (Josh Marshall excepted).

Policies not Politics


I agree (0.00 / 0)
but I don't there is nearly the ideological distance between Strom Thurmand and FDR than there is between Evan Bayh and Bernie Sanders.

[ Parent ]
"Prone to get mired corruption and abuse of power" (0.00 / 0)
Yes -- and also, Democrats in profoundly Democratic states get complacent. The existing office holders solidify their positions; their benches stay weak; the electorate remains unengaged...

Oh yes, I do live in California.

Can it happen here?


[ Parent ]
The next other party (0.00 / 0)
Since the Republican party is fast going the route of the Federalists and Whigs, what will be the next second party to pair with the Democrats?  

Please, any political historians correct me, but the second party in U.S. politics has always been to the right of the Democrats (at least as relates to the issues of labor, the middle/working classes, etc.  Obviously the Democratic support of slavery during the 19th century complicates that analysis, but you get my point).  

So, how about a party to the left of the Democrats this time?  Personally, I would prefer a multitude of legitimate political parties from all over the political spectrum without the existence of one or two majors - but if we cannot have that immediately, why cede ground to the right in the coming political-party vacuum?  


New Parties (4.00 / 1)
New parties always require startup cash.  That's one big reason they've been to the right of the Democrats.  This obviously simplifies things by many orders of magnitude, but it's a major part of this.

To start a new party to the left of the Democrats would require organized labor to be behind it in no small part.  Without it, their might not be the financial and organizational heft needed to get to critical mass.  


[ Parent ]
It Doesn't Work That Way (0.00 / 0)
You're not going to get a new second party to the left of the Democrats because there are way fewer people to the left of Democrats than to the right of them.

There are natural ways for new major parties to arise.  For example, let's say that the Blue Dogs decide that the Democratic Party has gone too far left.  So, they decide to split.  One of things is going to happen.  Either the Blue Dogs will get absorbed into the Republican Party or the Republicans will fall apart like the Whigs and the Blue Dogs will absorb some parts of the Republican coalition.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
Well (4.00 / 1)
If the Democrats continue to be a party which significantly supports corporate interests at the expense of everyone else (and, with the end of the Republicans, no doubt this support of such interests will only grow) then your claim that there are too few people to its left will be falsified.

But, odds are you are correct that some measure of old Republicans and Blue Dogs/New Dems will form a party to the right.  I was only suggesting that we pre-empt that process.    


[ Parent ]
Chris, this is indeed good news (4.00 / 3)
But it only sets the stage for us to build better progressive campaigns on. The repugs have been excellent plyares in squeaking out wins in impossible situations for years, and it took Obama's massive grassroots infrastructure (and a weak candidate in McCain) to overcome them at the presidential level.

Here in Montana in 2006, Jon Tester squeaked by with only 2,700 votes more than the corrupt Conrad Burns, and dems have yet to able to field a good enough campaigner to overcome on slimey repug rep Denny Rehberg.

I'll take whatever help the demographic switch can give us but we still need excellent candidates waging kick-butt campaigns.


Will Business Have a Party? (4.00 / 2)
The Republithugs have been the main party for business interests (with a number of bought-off Democrats, like Schumer, Feinstein, etc.).  It's really difficult for me to imagine an America without a party for the wealthy.  It will be really interesting to see how they see that their interests come before those of the other 95% of the country.  They need to act soon - the Republithugs will lose another 5-6 Senate seats in 2010 and become completely irrelevent.

you are an optimist on culture wars (0.00 / 0)
Over at the Atlantic, conservative Ross Douthat, who we'll soon be reading in the NYT, argues religious conflicts are worse when the population is closer to a 50-50 split.  I don't see much reason to be optimistic on the culture wars.

New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.

Florida (0.00 / 0)
His analysis on Florida is to some degree already out of state.

Florida is not, as of this moment, a high growth state.  The pace of growth has slowed significantly since the '04 Hurricane Season, and has probably stopped completely over the last 2 years.  For most of the last 15 years, Florida's unemployment has been below the national average, it is now above the national average.

It is useful, I think, to compare the '08 numbers against the '00 numbers. Obama ran 3 points better in Florida than Al Gore did in 2000 while he ran about 7 points better than Gore did nationally.  Some of the comparisons he makes regarding the I-4 corridor are a little misleading as Obama's margins were not substantially higher than Gore's in some of the key counties.  

In the aftermath of the 2000 election there were two competing theories about Florida.  One argued it was trending Democratic (a result of the rising non-cuban hispanic population), the other argued that the migration to Florida was from the conservative midwest counties.  For the most part the latter explanation has held up better (Democrats have won four statewide races since 2000).

Having said all of this, the economic crisis has hit harder here than many places, and there is an opportunity here to build a Democratic majority.  The Obama organization was amazing in this state, and there certainly is reason to hope here.    


Suffice it to say, (0.00 / 0)
any analysis involving the demographics of the 2008 election that fails to take into account the singular fact of the economic crisis, and how that may easily have greatly skewed -- but only temporarily -- the numbers involved, is not one worth taking seriously.

It would be pretty much the exact equivalent of taking the demographics 2002 elections, distorted as they were by the political aftermath of 9/11, as definitive regarding the future of electoral politics. (Which is of course how the Republicans -- braying, boastful ninnies in their own accidental moment of electoral glory -- took it back in the day.)

Can we make a special effort not to be dumb? Please?  

In fact, if Obama and the Democrats blow their opportunity to solve the economic crisis -- which, to date, seems to be what they are on course to do -- then you can throw all those demographics down any convenient plumbing, because, across the board, the American people are going to smack them hard.  


What is the real lesson to be learned from 2006 and 2008? (4.00 / 1)
Answer: if you and your party fails at something very important (2006, Iraq war; 2008, preventing economic catastrophe), then your party goes down to ignominious defeat.

And, class, applying that lesson, what happens to the Dems if they fail to stop the economic slump from becoming a major, long term disaster? Then the Dems will go down to ignominious defeat.

And of course what would be unforgivable about such a fate is that, according to most sensible economists, it is within the power of the Democratic Party to solve the economic problem: they need only apply an appropriately sized stimulus, and take clear steps -- such as the temporary nationalization of some banks -- to deal with the credit crisis. It is only cowardice and dithering that will stand in their way.


[ Parent ]
Nuance (4.00 / 1)
The demographic trends - that younger voters, Hispanic voters, and virtually any other GROWING demographic has been trending Democratic - were evident for some time.

I agree that there is no reason for complacency, or for pushing the envelope out of a false sense of security.

I also agree that it failure will lead to losses in the short run.

But I think there is good reason to say that most demographic trends are predicting a long term leftward shit.  I anticipate that the Republicans will shift left, and be closer to the blue dogs.  The threat of the angry white blue collar voter is greatly diminished.


[ Parent ]
this is no problem for the GOP (4.00 / 3)
All they have to do is get some high-profile leaders who are non-male (Palin), non-white (Steele) and non-old (Jindahl...bonus, non-white!).

Oh wait...


Thanks for providing the link to the report, Chris (0.00 / 0)
I am finding it fascinating.  This caught my eye:

And in Florida, while the minority share of voters did not increase, blacks supported Obama by 96 percent to 4 percent in 2008 compared to 86 percent-to-13 percent support for Kerry, while Hispanics, whom Kerry lost by 56 percent to 43 percent, supported Obama by 57 percent to 42 percent. The latter is truly a sign of change in Florida as Hispanic voters, spearheaded by relatively conservative Cuban Americans, have long been a key conservative voting bloc in that state.

All those conversations, emails and phone discussions with my FL cousins are beginning to pay off.  Some of them are finally seeing the light.

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