America's New Electorate

How rising minority populations can reshape U.S. politics and carry Obama to victory in 2012
Miami voting line - Hans Deryk : Reuters - banner.jpg

Voters in Miami Beach wait to cast their ballots in the 2008 presidential election. credit: Hans Deryk/Reuters

The next America is arriving ahead of schedule. And it could rattle assumptions about the coming presidential election.

Last week's release of national totals from the 2010 census showed that the minority share of the population increased over the past decade in every state, reaching levels higher than demographers anticipated almost everywhere, and in the nation as a whole. If President Obama and Democrats can convert that growth into new voters in 2012, they can get a critical boost in many of the most hotly contested states and also seriously compete for some highly diverse states such as Arizona and Georgia that until now have been reliably red.

"One of the strengths of our candidacy in 2008 is, we had a broader battlefield; what these numbers suggest is that those same opportunities are there [for 2012], and there are new ones to consider," David Axelrod, who is expected to be Obama's senior campaign strategist, told National Journal.

Even as the growing minority population creates new opportunities for Democrats, however, the party faces persistent challenges within the majority-white community. In November's midterm elections, Republicans won 60 percent of white voters--the highest share of whites they have attracted in any congressional election in the history of modern polling. Since May, Obama's job-approval rating among whites has exceeded 40 percent only twice in Gallup's weekly summary of its nightly polling. Unless the economic recovery accelerates, many analysts in both parties believe that Obama could struggle to match the modest 43 percent of white voters he captured in 2008.

(Also see "Where Obama's White Vote Matters Less in 2012.")

These twin dynamics suggest that in many states the key question for 2012 may be whether Republicans can increase their advantage among whites enough to overcome what's likely to be a growing share of the overall vote cast by minorities, who still break preponderantly for Democrats. In Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Virginia, and other key states that have experienced substantial minority growth, a National Journal analysis shows that Obama can win next year with a stunningly small percentage of the white vote--if Democrats can translate the minority-population growth into commensurate increases in the electorate.

Unless Democrats regain some of the support they lost in 2010, Obama has no guarantee of matching his 2008 share of the white vote, especially in metal-bending states such as Ohio and Indiana where voters without a college education dominate the white population. "You have a situation where the bleeding can be so severe that it can overwhelm the changes that are positive," says Ruy Teixeira, an electoral and demographic analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress.

But in more racially diverse states, NJ's analysis suggests, Republicans may need to win an implausibly high percentage of whites to prevail, unless they can also reduce Obama's advantage among minorities. "I think Republicans have long felt and known we need to do better in minority communities," says GOP consultant Mike DuHaime, the field director for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. Pursuing that goal is likely to acquire more urgency as both parties digest the implications of the census.


In releasing its final 2010 national results last week, the Census Bureau sent Americans a postcard from the future. From every angle, the results showed that the nation's transformation into a "majority-minority" nation is proceeding even faster than expected. Nationally, the overall share of the non-Hispanic white population dropped from 69.1 percent in 2000 to 63.7 in 2010, a greater decline than most analysts anticipated. In a mirror image, the minority population grew from 30.9 percent in 2000 to 36.3 percent in 2010.

The change over the past decade was especially dramatic among young people. In the new census, 46.5 percent of people under 18 were minority, a dramatic jump from 39.1 percent in 2000. As recently as last summer, demographers projected that minorities would make up a majority of the under-18 population sometime after 2020. At the current rate of growth, however, nonwhites will comprise a majority of children in the United States by 2015. And because of the explosive minority growth in the youth population--the people who will form families and become parents in the coming years--the nonwhite share of the overall population is likely to grow even faster over the next decade, says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.

The census numbers are "telling us about our future," Frey says. "I see this as a pivot decade. This decade what we're seeing is, these Hispanics and Asians are really crucial to our country because they are juxtaposed against an aging white population. It is really the new minorities--Hispanics and Asians--that are driving where we're headed." Strikingly, as Frey notes, the census found that the number of whites under 18 declined by more than 4 million over the past decade, even as the number of minority young people increased by more than 6 million.

Not only the depth but also the breadth of the minority expansion turned heads. From 2000 through 2010, the minority share of the population increased in every state. Four states are now majority minority: Hawaii, New Mexico, California, and Texas. In eight other states, minorities make up from 40 to 50 percent of the population. In 2000, minorities were 40 percent or more of the population in just four states.

Diversity is sprouting even in places long considered alabaster: In the new census, minorities represent more than 20 percent of the population in Utah, nearly 18 percent in Indiana, 17 percent in Minnesota, 16 percent in Idaho, and 15 percent in South Dakota. Minority populations in Iowa and North Dakota poked into double digits. "This is a universal story," says Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic analysis and advocacy group. "Even though there are some places where this is happening with greater intensity, it is happening universally all over the country."

"The new minorities--Hispanics and Asians--are driving where we're headed." --Demographer William Frey

Hispanics are the driving engine of this growth. On the national level, Latinos now represent one in six Americans, or nearly 50.5 million in all. That's up from one in eight, about 35.3 million, in 2000. The Hispanic share of the population increased over the past decade in every state, with dramatic gains recorded not only in Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas but also in Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Latinos accounted for a majority of the population growth in 18 states, at least 40 percent of the growth in seven more, and at least 30 percent in five others. In sum, Hispanics fueled about a third or more of the population growth in 30 states. "The big umbrella [story] in the census is the Hispanic dispersion across the country," Frey says. "It has become even more dramatic this decade than the last decade."

Presented by

Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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