Demographics are destiny. This much, in American politics, is true. But we rarely appreciate the pace of the racial and ethnic change happening throughout the country. To step back and see the broader, long-term picture is to recognize that, while we're an evenly divided country now, we may be close to a tipping point after which the entire landscape will change.
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If recent electoral and population trends hold, Democrats need only wait a few presidential election cycles until they begin every White House contest as clear, eventually even overwhelming, favorites.
That's the conclusion of a new report from Lincoln Park Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm in Washington. A Democratic firm predicting Democratic wins may not sound like news, but their reasoning has strategists on both sides convinced that unless Republicans start making serious inroads in minority communities, the party is doomed to run from behind.
Current Census Bureau estimates say the nation's population will grow by about 61 million people over the next 18 years, to 373 million. That growth will come largely among minorities; the bureau believes the nation's Hispanic population will grow by 63 percent, the number of African-Americans will increase by 27 percent, and the Asian-American population will increase by 55 percent. At the same time, the number of whites in America will rise by only 4 percent. Those numbers point to a much more diverse nation: Today, about 64 percent of the population is white. By 2030, that figure is predicted to shrink to 56 percent.
That's frightening news for Republicans, a party that has had little success winning over minority voters in recent years. In a presidential year, an 8-point drop in the percentage of white voters is enough to move mountains — or at least purple states.
At the moment, Democrats can count on at least 165 electoral votes in base Democratic states, where the average level of Democratic performance is higher than 55 percent, as calculated by Lincoln Park Strategies. The party also has an advantage in states with another 86 electoral votes, where average Democratic performance is between 52.5 percent and 55 percent. Republicans can count on 143 electoral votes from their own base states and another 53 from lean-Republican states, leaving 91 votes in seven pure swing states, where neither party's average candidate is projected to win more than 52.5 percent of the vote.
Disproportionate minority population growth will mean substantial changes to the electoral map by 2032. Twenty years from now, increased minority populations in Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, and Iowa have the potential to move those states toward the Democrats, giving the party 274 base and lean electoral votes, according to the Lincoln Park Strategies report — more than a candidate needs to win the White House.
The changing face of America hints at what might be ahead for Democrats, but there's no guarantee any of the benefits will materialize. After all, there remains a big gap between the percentage of eligible whites who are registered to vote (78 percent) and eligible minorities who are registered (67 percent of African-Americans, 53 percent of Asian-Americans, and just 43 percent of Hispanics, according to a 2011 Pew Hispanic Center study).
"Democrats have a rare opportunity to harness a demographic advantage over the next two decades," the Lincoln Park Strategies report states. "However, demographics are not guaranteed votes. Democrats should not rest assured that these votes are coming to them automatically."
Stefan Hankin, one of the authors, elaborated: "Let's go with the assumption that Republicans aren't going to be completely stupid. People like Jeb Bush and Karl Rove have been talking about the party's problems with Hispanic voters.''
Indeed, a number of prominent Republicans are aiming to improve the party's image among Hispanics through a conglomeration of pollsters and party strategists called Resurgent Republic.
"We are not stupid. We did not flunk arithmetic — we can count. And we will adapt, sooner rather than later," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster involved with Resurgent Republic.
The Republican National Committee has taken steps to appeal more directly to Hispanic voters, hiring several regional Hispanic-outreach directors and a national coordinator.
If Republicans make inroads among Hispanic voters, their Electoral College situation will improve markedly, the analysis found. After all, George W. Bush won a second term in office in part by collecting 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. If Republicans equal that achievement, the Democratic advantage by 2032 would be much smaller: 258 electoral votes would be in the base or lean-Democratic category, with 165 in the base or lean-Republican camp and 115 as pure toss-ups.
Speeding up the change would require Democrats to perform well among the one demographic group whose support for them has dropped: white voters. Even assuming lower Hispanic support, just a 2-point increase in the amount of support Democrats are able to win from white voters would put 274 electoral votes in the base or lean-Democratic column by 2032.
But if demographics are destiny, the numbers are moving in Democrats' direction. The GOP has a decade or more to change those numbers and its relationships with minority communities. Republicans will ignore strategists and leaders like Ayres, Rove, and Bush at their own peril.