Demographic trends are destiny -- until they're not

Demographics for 2018 election
Demographics for 2018 election

In the run-up to the 2016 campaign, Republicans were told that they had to adjust to demographic change if they were to have a future. They even said it to themselves.

The Republican National Committee produced an "autopsy" after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat urging the party, among other things, "to embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform" or be written off by the country’s growing Hispanic population.

Demography was destiny — until it wasn’t. House Republicans declined to pass a big immigration bill, and Donald Trump ran a campaign that sometimes seemed designed to alienate rather than court Hispanics. Yet Trump not only won the election. He even slightly improved on Romney’s share of Hispanic voters who chose a major-party candidate. (Asian-Americans were the only racial group that moved toward the Democrats in 2016.)

My sense is that since then, the folk wisdom of Democrats on this subject is that the previous consensus was right but premature. History is still on their side; it is just taking a while to prove it. Among Republicans there is still concern about adverse demographic trends. But the example of 2016 has also increased the number of Republicans who discount or ignore such trends.

Four think tanks have an ongoing project, called "States of Change," that brings data to bear on these questions. Its researchers are serious data crunchers (although they let this history major serve on their advisory board). In a new report, Democratic strategist Anna Greenberg and conservative-leaning election commentator Sean Trende offer separate analyses based on the best available data.


The project allows the researchers to run different simulations of future presidential elections based on assumptions about turnout and voting behavior for different groups. For example: If whites with college degrees, whites without college degrees, Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans vote at the same rates and for the same parties they did in 2016, the change in their share of the population would lead to a Democratic victory in 2020.

All else equal, whites’ falling share of the population will help Democrats and hurt Republicans. But Republicans can counteract that effect if, for example, they continually win somewhat higher shares of the many white voters without college degrees.

Several of the scenarios in which Republicans win the presidency resemble 2000 and 2016: They’re electoral victories earned with fewer popular votes than the Democrats are projected to get. That might erode the legitimacy of the electoral system. It might also reduce Democratic turnout, as liberal-leaning voters decide their votes do not matter.

The analyses by Greenberg and Trende raise at least three issues worth tracking.

First: What percentage of people of Hispanic descent are going to define themselves, in the future, as Hispanic?

Second: Will Democrats find a way to replicate President Barack Obama’s performance among African-Americans? Between 2012 and 2016, black turnout dropped a little and their Democratic vote share dropped a lot, from 93.7 to 88.2 percent. Trende suggests that black voting patterns are returning to their pre-Obama norm.

Third: How long will the leftward inclinations of young voters last? Will age, and the marriages and mortgages that accompany them, pull these voters toward the Republicans?

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