Demography Is Not Destiny for Democrats

Redistricting and GOP dominance among white voters have offset the growing racial diversity that was supposed to give Democrats an unbeatable edge.

National Journal

Growing racial diversity is transforming a lengthening list of congressional districts, but not providing as much political benefit to House Democrats as many in both parties expected only a few years ago, a Next America analysis has found.

Districts high in racial diversity remain the last redoubt for the House Democrats' depleted caucus: As Next America has reported, almost exactly two-thirds of the 188 Democratic House members in the new Congress represent districts where minorities exceed their national share of the population, 37.6 percent.

But Democrats have clearly failed to squeeze all the possible advantage from growing diversity, particularly as Republicans have consolidated their hold over districts where whites are more plentiful than they are nationally. While Democrats continue to dominate districts where minorities represent half or more of residents, the GOP remains doggedly competitive in seats where the minority population is either slightly above, or slightly below, its national average. In fact, in the new Congress, Republicans will hold a majority of the seats in which minorities represent at least 30 percent and no more than 50 percent of the total population.

Stephanie Stamm

That trend has dulled the Democratic advantage from the steady increase in districts where diversity has established at least a beachhead. In the 103rd Congress from 1993-94, minorities represented 30 percent or more of the population in just 109 House districts, according to a previous National Journal analysis of data from the 1990 decennial census. Today, minorities represent at least 30 percent of all residents in 235 seats, according to results of the Census Bureau's 2013 American Community Survey.

In turn, the number of districts where whites are at least 80 percent of the population has declined from 245 after the 1990 redistricting to 115 now. On a map, those districts in the 1990s covered almost all of the northern half of the country, with only the exception of California and some Mid-Atlantic states. Since then, as I've written before, the preponderantly white seats have retreated, almost like a receding glacier, into the country's northernmost third.

But while diversity has undeniably diffused over the past two decades, it has concentrated into a decisive critical mass in fewer places. Though minorities today represent at least 30 percent of the population in those 235 districts, that number drops to 159 at a 40 percent threshold and 117 at 50 percent.

In the new Congress, Democrats will hold 99 of the 117 seats in which minorities constitute a population majority. But their performance is much less impressive in the band of seats just above, and below, the national average in diversity. In the new Congress, Republicans hold a slight 23-19 edge in the districts where minorities represent above 40 percent and not more than 50 percent of the population, and a broader 48-28 lead in the seats where minorities represent above 30 percent and not more than 40 percent of the residents.

The key to the Democrats' loss of Congress, as we reported here, is their near-total collapse in heavily white seats, particularly those blue-collar places with fewer white college graduates. But in their struggle to regain a majority, these modestly diverse districts represent a critical target for Democrats—as a historical comparison makes clear. In the new Congress, Democrats will hold 146 of the 235 seats where minorities equal at least three-tenths of the total population, or 62 percent. That's down significantly from the 84 percent they controlled of the 109 seats that fit that definition in 1993.

Exit polls show that Democrats have maintained a consistently lopsided advantage with minority voters nationwide at both the presidential and congressional level over that period. So why hasn't the increase in the number of districts with significant minority populations benefited the party more?

Probably the single most important answer is the widespread control of the 2010 redistricting that the GOP earned by winning so many state legislative and gubernatorial elections in that year's campaign.

In earlier redistricting efforts, Republicans, often with the support of minority Democratic politicians, frequently sought to "pack" minority voters into concentrated urban districts that would reliably elect nonwhite Democrats—while simultaneously producing mostly white Republican-leaning districts beyond the urban core.

Tom Bonier, CEO of the Democratic electoral targeting firm TargetSmart Communications, says that "more diffused settlement patterns by minority voters" in rapidly diversifying states such as Georgia and Texas forced Republicans who controlled redistricting to focus instead on diffusing Democratic-leaning minorities across a wide range of districts where they are still outnumbered by conservative white populations. In Texas, for instance, no fewer than 19 House Republicans hold districts where minorities represent between one-third to just under half of the population. "In order for Republicans to hold back Democrats "... in Congress," says Bonier, "they had to draw districts that are diverse enough, but don't get to that critical mass where Democrats can win."

The impact of redistricting becomes powerfully clear when comparing the outcomes from diverse districts in states where Republicans controlled redistricting after 2010 with those where they did not. The GOP had complete control of the line-drawing in Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Oklahoma: In the new Congress, Republicans will control 60 of the 94 seats in those states where minorities equal at least 30 percent of the population.

By contrast, in California, New York, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada, Colorado, Connecticut, and New Mexico—states where either Democrats, a divided state government, or a neutral process drew the lines—Democrats will control 87 of the 112 seats where minorities cross that population threshold.

As Bonier notes, the GOP strategy of dispersing substantial minority populations only works if "the white vote "... remains overwhelmingly Republican." That points to the second factor that has allowed House Republicans to manage the growing wave of diversity: the GOP's increasing dominance among white voters.

In the three elections since 2010, Republican congressional candidates have amassed their highest level of white support in the history of polling, in each case attracting about three-fifths of those voters. The margins have been especially lopsided in several of the Sun Belt states where diversity is growing fastest: While state-level House results are not available, exit polls in both Texas and Georgia, for instance, found that last year's Democratic Senate candidates attracted fewer than one in four white voters.

Those big advantages among whites have powered the GOP to a crushing lead in preponderantly white districts: While Democrats as recently as 2009 held nearly half of seats where whites equaled at least 80 percent of the population, Republicans now control 97 of those seats, compared with just 18 for Democrats. At the same time, particularly in the South, Republican margins among whites have reached heights towering enough to withstand, often easily, a rising tide of Democratic-leaning minority voters in the diversifying places. "They can win those districts because they are racially polarized in their voting patterns," says University of California (San Diego) political scientist Gary C. Jacobson, an expert on Congressional elections.

Examining the picture from another angle points toward a similar conclusion about the importance of both redistricting and the Democratic struggles among whites. Of the 71 Republicans representing districts in which minorities comprise at least percent 30 and not more than 50 percent of the population, just 17 are in seats that can be considered even partially competitive, based on congressional and presidential voting patterns. Even among the 18 additional Republicans who represent districts where minorities constitute a population majority, only eight hold what might be considered truly swing seats. (None of the four Texas House Republicans who represent majority-minority seats, for instance, hold truly competitive seats.)

Even so, that still means Republicans today control about two dozen heavily minority seats whose underlying partisan balance leaves them within reach for both parties. Texas-based Democratic consultant James Aldrete, an expert on Hispanic voters, says turnout is a key part of the party's problem in those districts, particularly among minority voters now migrating away from their traditional population centers. "You have lower community ties in the emerging populations, you have a relatively youthful population, and you have low educational achievement levels," he says. "That combination means there really needs to be heavy grassroots infrastructure that is consistent, that is just not turning out [on Election Day], but creating community bonds."

But turnout and redistricting isn't the entire story. Almost all House Republicans representing heavily minority but safely GOP-leaning districts have amassed unwaveringly conservative records; that list includes some of the party's most militant voices on immigration, such as Texas's Lamar Smith and Louie Gohmert. But many of the House Republicans in diverse, competitive seats—such as Mike Coffman in Colorado, Jeff Denham and David Valadao in California, and Joe Heck in Nevada, and Cuban-American legislators such as Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart in Florida—have aggressively courted their large minority populations by supporting legal status for at least some undocumented immigrants. In some places, Republicans have also made inroads for core conservative ideas among minority voters; last November's exit poll in Texas, for instance, showed Republican gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott carrying fully 44 percent of Hispanics (although other pollsters maintain that overstated his strength). "It's just a fact of life that in Texas, many Hispanics and middle-class African-Americans are conservative," says longtime GOP consultant David Carney, Abbott's chief strategist. "It isn't like the Republicans have done anything tricky or Machiavellian or really cool and sophisticated. They just are conservative."

Still, Democratic strategists remain cautiously optimistic that continued minority population growth will tip more of these diverse districts back into their hands over time—particularly if the GOP continues its rightward tilt on issues of particular relevance to nonwhite voters, such as immigration and health reform. "Redistricting has been a very powerful force for Republicans to shore up their majority," says Jesse Ferguson, who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's independent expenditure program in 2014. "But they cannot defy math, and at some point these fast-growing populations will force a reality where some of these seats go our way, unless Republicans do something significant to right themselves with these [minority] communities."

The one point on which both parties can agree is that while winning more of these diverse seats won't be sufficient for Democrats to recapture the House, it is a necessary first step. Unless and until they take it, House Democrats will face a distinct disadvantage in their uphill climb to regain a majority.

Janie Boschma and Stephanie Stamm contributed to this article