We have recently completed studies for the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution that look at the political demography and geography of ten “purple” states—the swing states that will likely determine the outcome of the presidential election of 2008 and are neither firmly Democratic nor Republican: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona in the intermountain west, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri in the midwest, Florida and Virginia in the south and Pennsylvania in the northeast. Currently, according to Pollster.com poll averages, Barack Obama leads in nine of these ten states, with Arizona, John McCain’s home state, the lone exception. Yet even there the race is tighter than most expected.
Certainly the tanking economy and voter antipathy toward the Bush administration are sources of much of this pro-Democratic pattern. But underlying the short-term political factors are five long-range demographic trends that are making these states friendlier to the Democrats and undercutting historic Republican advantages. (You can view a detailed slide show on these trends by clicking here).
The Decline and Transformation of the White Working Class. The white working class has been the bulwark of the Republican Party, enabling it to hold the presidency for 28 out of the last 40 years. In the 2004 election, these voters went for Bush over Kerry by 23 points. But this group, while still looming large in many swing states, especially in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, is declining as a share of voters in every single swing state.
Poll data indicates that Obama is actually leading among white college graduates by three to five points, a stunning reversal from past elections.
Moreover, perhaps as important, the orientation of white working class voters appears to be changing. Averaging data from recent national polls (where available) indicates that the Republican advantage among these voters has now shrunk to the single digits. This pro-Democratic shift has been particularly sharp among whites with some college, now 40 percent of the white working class and growing. Our research shows that this upwardly mobile, aspirational group has been trending strongly toward the Democrats since 1988 in most swing states. This could be the election in which the trend goes national.
The Rise of College Graduate Whites. White college graduates, unlike the white working class, are a growing group in almost all states, including every swing state we studied. And in states like Colorado and Virginia where large numbers of people from California and the Northeast have migrated, their representation among 2008 voters is likely to be particularly high—around 35 percent in Virginia and over 40 percent in Colorado.
The movement toward the Democrats has been gradual. In 1988 the Democrats lost both white college graduate and white working class voters by 20 points. In 2004, the Democrats actually lost ground among white working class voters, losing them by 23 points. But they only lost white college graduate voters by 11 points in 2004, a nine point improvement over 1988.
In this election, that trend appears likely to accelerate. In fact, averaging recent poll data indicates that Obama is actually leading among white college graduates by from three to five points, a stunning reversal of partisan loyalties that would have political implications that go considerably beyond this election.
The Rise of the Minority Vote. The minority vote is also growing everywhere, especially in fast-growing “purple” states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia. Indeed, in Nevada, minorities, driven by Hispanic growth, have been increasing their share of eligible voters by almost a percentage point a year over the past decade. Even discounting this growth somewhat to reflect lower turnout among minority eligible voters compared to whites, this is still a startling rate of change.
Every indication from the polling data points to a minority vote that will be even more strongly Democratic this year than it was in 2004. Gallup data show Obama leading McCain by 87 points among blacks, 10 points better than Kerry’s 2004 margin, and by 38 points among Hispanics, twice Kerry’s margin.
The Emergence of a New Metropolitan Politics. Metropolitan areas, particularly large ones, are increasingly dominating swing state politics. For all the talk in this campaign about voters in small towns and rural areas, voters in metro areas are far more important and are the real drivers of political change. It is in these dynamic areas that the decline of the white working class and the rise of white college graduate and minority voters are having their strongest effects. In Nevada, the Las Vegas metro, two thirds of the Nevada vote, became 20 points more Democratic between 1988 and 2004, while the vast, heavily Republican rural heartland remained stagnant in partisan terms. In Virginia, the Northern Virginia part of the DC metro, the Richmond metro and the Virginia Beach metro together cast 69 percent of the statewide vote and have, respectively, become 23, 15 and 12 points more Democratic over the time period. By contrast, south and western Virginia, the state’s most conservative and predominantly rural parts, have barely changed partisan proclivities at all, becoming only one point more Republican.
We have discovered patterns like these in swing state after state—metro areas, particularly large ones and especially their growing suburbs, are moving swiftly toward the Democrats while rural and small town areas are remaining generally conservative. Most importantly, rural and small town areas contain fewer voters and are growing slowly, if at all. The net result makes these states substantially more open to Democratic appeals.
The Correlation between Population Growth and Democratic Trends. The issue of growth underlies the broad political trends. While not a perfect correlation, it is becoming far more common than not for growing areas to be moving toward the Democrats, while declining areas trend Republican. This relationship applies strongly to fast-growing states like Nevada and Virginia but also applies to slow-growing states. Consider Pennsylvania. The eastern part of the state is where almost all the growth is located--the part of the state increasingly becoming part of a vast Northeastern megalopolis. That is also the part of the state trending toward the Democrats, while the declining central and western parts of the state have stayed or moved Republican.
Ohio, another key swing state, is another example of the trends. The strongest growth in Ohio tends to be in the Columbus metro area. And it is precisely in the Columbus metro that we have seen the strongest trends toward the Democrats since 1988—a robust 22 point shift.
For these reasons, emerging demographic trends have made America's purple states more and more open to the Democrats. On November 4, we’ll see if these trends are stronger than the Republican campaign against Barack Obama.