The Demographics We Missed in the Obama Years

During the Obama Presidency, a lot of people liked to talk about “Demographics are Destiny” in talking about our political future. The idea was that the rising non-white population, especially of Latinos, would lead the country left for decades to come. Republicans May never win a popular vote again, they said. That prediction may just be right.

Donald Trump did end up getting elected though, as Republicans point out. A whopping 70% of voters were white, and projections show that number only marginally moving in 2020. Even more perplexing though is how Trump, a pretty open racist, neither did worse among minority voters or ignited their turnout to higher numbers. Trump won without bringing back any of Colorado, New Mexico, or Nevada. It all seemed so horribly backward.

Perhaps though, we weren’t wrong in the Obama era. Maybe the demographic shifts were telling us our destiny, but maybe we were watching the wrong ones. It’s tempting to entirely credit President Obama with African-Americans becoming a 90% Democratic voting block, but that was part of a long-term trend, one that began in 1964, and reached these levels basically in the 2000’s. Barack Obama certainly increased turnout among voters who are increasingly Democratic, but the percentages were only marginally different. There wasn’t a “change” going on, just more people entering that shared his view. We did miss a different change going on though, one that I think explains the Trump era more clearly.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush won a landslide, and got roughly 60% of the white vote, which was 90% of the total electorate. In 2008, John McCain was down to 55%. In 2012, Mitt Romney virtually matched Bush 41’s share of the white vote, grabbing 59%, but lost with only 206 electoral votes, a whopping 126 less than Barack Obama. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton 58% to 37% among white voters. The tick back upward for Republicans among white voters is not enormous, but 3-4% in the last two Presidential elections is significant, particularly when even seemingly any nominee has 46% to start in a one-on-one race. A tick up of 3-4% can explain every election from 2010 forward.

Even more so though, the shift of white voters, especially white men, out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party explains the two parties culture shifts. White suburban and exurban Democratic primaries are picking women over men, when all things are nearly equal. White guys are losing their long held Congressional seats, or nearly doing so, in America’s big cities. Republicans are embracing Trump and some of his worst policies on immigration, because their voters are increasingly down-scale and just generally white than they used to be. There’s no cost to them for campaigning to blue collar whites.

My guess is that this trend basically explains the last 25 years of increased polarization, and probably serves to predict the future of our politics. If the elections of Obama and Trump locked in a bump back to Reagan levels of white support for Republicans, and the Democrats are now left with a further left and smaller slice of white voters to coalition with minority voters, it stands to reason that both parties will embrace the identity of their coalitions, and those numbers will continue to expand. More white voters will move right, more Latinos in particular will move left. It seems demographics will be our destiny, but maybe the reason why isn’t exactly what we thought.

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