Will 2012 be the Last Hurrah for Whites?

National Journal

We reached an important tipping point in May when Census Bureau statistics revealed that, for the first time, whites represented a minority--49.6 percent--of all U.S. births. This is hardly a surprise to anyone who spends time in schools, playgrounds, or other settings where children predominate.

Because of recent immigration waves from Latin America and Asia and an aging, low-fertility white population, America is "browning" from the bottom of our age structure on up, and is destined to become a "majority minority" population in another three decades.

Yet these demographic shifts have, thus far, seemed almost irrelevant to the 2012 presidential campaign. In the parade of state Republican primary elections that made Mitt Romney the presumptive party nominee, the issues were targeted primarily to older, middle-class whites. And, while the economy will be issue No. 1 in the general election, important minority concerns like education, immigration reform, and the Dream Act are likely to take a back seat to the national deficit, Social Security, and the government's role in medical care.

This disconnect with the nation's new diverse demographics can be explained by the fact that minorities are, for the present, less likely to be citizens and of voting age. The following statistics tell it all: For every 100 Hispanics in the population, only 44 are eligible to vote. This compares with 78 eligible voters for every 100 whites in the population.  (Blacks and Asians are also less able than whites to vote at rates of 69 and 53 per 100, respectively.

Whites comprise 71 percent of the U.S. electorate, compared with just 63 percent of the population. They are the majority of eligible voters in all states except Hawaii, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia.

But the focus on "safe" issues embraced by white older and independent voters cannot be the strategy for campaigns in the future. It may not even work this time. In 2008, the energized minority vote for Obama in key swing states was responsible for putting him over the top.

Hispanics helped to tip the balance in Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico, while blacks were important in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia. Minority clout in selected states could make the difference this year as well, despite a likely stronger turnout among Republican-leaning whites.

Beyond this year, the handwriting is on the wall: Minority votes will matter and both parties need to pay attention. This can be seen by examining the 2012 racial profiles of U.S.-born children, under age 18--each of whom will be eligible voters over the next four presidential elections. Forty-six percent of these eventual voters are minorities, compared with just 29 percent of today's eligible voters. And 23 percent of them are Hispanics, compared with 10 percent of those able to vote this year (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

The Hispanic disparity is especially strong in the states of New Mexico, Texas, and California, where more than half of U.S.-born children are Latinos (see Figure 2). Their numbers and potential Democratic support could turn Republican mainstay Texas into a swing state.

In Arizona, future demographic shifts should put it squarely in the swing-state category.  There, 47 percent of U.S.-born youth are Hispanic, compared with just 23 percent of today's eligible voters. Many existing swing states--including Nevada, Colorado, and North Carolina--can brace for significant Hispanic boosts among their youth, along with other states such as Georgia, which are only edging into the swing-state category.

Figure 2.

The Hispanic youth bulge is not the only reason minorities will garner attention in future elections. The aging white population has led to tepid or even negative gains among white youth in many states, and as a consequence, all minorities will have a bigger relative impact.

A look at the map reveals that in 21 states, including large swaths of the West, Southeast, and urban North, minorities comprise more than four in 10 U.S.-born youth (See map).  

It's the case in Florida, where gains in Hispanics, blacks, and other minorities reduce its white share of youth to 49 percent--compared with 69 percent of its adult eligible voters. In Illinois, the 72 percent white electorate contrasts sharply with the 53 percent white share of its under-18 population.

Of course, white votes will outnumber those of minorities well beyond the next election. But the demographics are shifting in ways that will push them off center stage.

Already, Hispanics and blacks are making a difference in competitive swing states where their growing numbers can tip the balance toward Democrats. But today's minority youth will be tomorrow's voters. As their size and influence expand to new parts of the  country in the Mountain West, South, suburban North, and elsewhere, both Republican and Democratic candidates will be forced to pay attention to their issues rather those they see as mostly stale and irrelevant.

William H. Frey is a demographer and senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution.

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