Betting on Demographics
Obama’s Risky Demographic Gamble
Betting something as big as reelection on increased diversity could backfire, says John Avlon.
Demographics are destiny, but Team Obama may be taking that a bit too literally.
Play-to-the-base campaigns are particularly risky for Democrats given that only 21 percent of Americans identify as liberal, but the Obama campaign has staked its reelection on an even more elusive target—the evolution of the American electorate.
President Obama admitted as much in his now on-the-record comments to the Des Moines Register, saying “a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.”
It is true that Mitt Romney and the current incarnation of the Republican Party have unwisely alienated Hispanic voters to an unprecedented extent. But it is unclear that betting something as big as a reelection on increased diversity is a wise decision in the short run.
There is a real risk that the Obama campaign has based too much of its electoral strategy on where the country will be in 2016 or 2020 rather than where it is in 2012.
In a must-read analysis this week, Ron Brownstein pointed out the uncomfortable fact that President Obama is lagging badly among white voters, gaining less than the necessary 40 percent threshold in recent polls. There are just not enough Hispanic and African-American voters to compensate for a massive loss of white support for Obama in the U.S.A. today. That’s one reason the campaign keeps deploying Bill Clinton, to great effect—it badly needs more of the Bubba vote.
Here’s where things stand in the swing states in terms of diversity:
In Florida, the 29-electoral-vote swing-state powerhouse where I am today, Hispanics make up 22.9 percent of the population—an increase of almost 400,000 since 2007. African-Americans remain 16 percent of the population in the Sunshine State. But population statistics are not the same as voter registration, and furthermore, the Hispanic vote in Florida is far from a monolith.
The Cuban community in the South is famously Republican, but an increase of Latin American and Puerto Rican citizens means that the Orlando area on the pivotal I-4 Corridor, for example, is more traditionally Democratic-leaning. And even dependable stereotypes about a uniformly conservative Cuban community are falling.
Yesterday in Lakeland, I spoke with Abraham Lajara, who moved to Florida from Puerto Rico in the early 1980s. “I have many Cuban friends and I share their views when it comes to political points against communism,” he said. “When you come from Latin America, you are either a little bit to the center or all to the right, I happen to be closer to the right on those views, but when it comes to social views, they get a little bit of Democratic seasoning on them, but they won’t tell Mommy and Daddy.”
It’s interesting to note that only one-third of Florida’s Hispanic population is now of Cuban descent. And 2006 represented the first year that Hispanic Democratic registration outnumbered Hispanic Republican registration in the Sunshine State.
Next, take a look at Colorado—where almost 21 percent of the population is now Hispanic, increasing by more than 100,000 residents from just four years ago. This was a dependably Republican state for decades, but an influx of new residents—along with an increasingly young and diverse population—has increased Democratic influence and helped Obama win the state easily in 2008. But Romney is polling strong in the state due in part to an erosion of white support for Obama.
Neighboring New Mexico used to be a bellwether swing state, but this cycle it is safely Democratic—in part because of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Nevada is still technically a swing state, but the Democratic registration advantage, buoyed by an increased Hispanic population, has led Obama to a steady edge there.
Finally, let’s look at Virginia. It was a shock when the Old Dominion State voted Obama in 2008, making him the first Democrat to win there since LBJ. The key to Obama’s competitiveness is the increased population and diversity in northern Virginia. Hispanics now make up 8.2 percent of the state—up more than 150,000 people in the past four years, while African-Americans make up 19.8 percent of the population. A robust Asian-American population also adds to the mix (although, interestingly, Asian-Americans tend to vote more Republican compared with Hispanics or African-Americans).
The point is that America is clearly and inevitably growing more diverse—especially in a handful of must-win swing states. But the trend is not yet anything approaching an outright majority, even in historically diverse states like Florida.
So the question Democrats have to ponder in this increasingly tight race is whether their bet on long-term demographic trends will fall fatally short this election.
Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, feels that this gamble is well worth it. “I think they’ve made an appropriate level of bet on changing demographics,” Teixeira says. “They would have been foolish not to try and mobilize this growing segment of voters … They’ve made effective outreach to non-college-educated white voters in Ohio, and if Obama’s lost ground with white voters in Colorado—and clearly he has—it makes perfect sense to try and engage these emerging demographics. Also, a lot of these polls are under-sampling minorities and we’re not exactly sure what that means.”
“We’re not at the point where the demographic changes are so pervasive that Democrats really become the default party,” Teixeira acknowledges. “That’s not quite true yet—maybe in another cycle or two.”
“This election is unusual tin that he GOP has done precious little to adapt itself to this new reality,” Teixeira concludes. “But every cycle it becomes more difficult to depend on getting an increasing share of the white vote to win. In this economy that may be feasible. I think they’ll ultimately fall short, but they’ll get close.”
All this is more reason that Get Out the Vote efforts are more important this year than perhaps ever before.
In the largest sense, it’s unhealthy for our 21st Century democracy to be this divided along racial lines. This is a problem that President Obama inherited—after signing the Voting Rights Act, LBJ famously said to his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “We just delivered the South to the Republicans for your generation and mine”—and it has been compounded by the fever pitch of polarization.
To heal this divide, both parties need to do a better job appealing to voters beyond their base. For Republicans, it could eventually become an existential problem driven by the bitter irony that the Party of Lincoln is on the wrong side of history when it comes to diversity.
For Democrats, the cost could be more devastating in the short term—the reelection loss of the first African-American president. And if they lose this battle while aiming to win the larger war, it will be cold comfort on the morning of Nov. 7th.