Why rising diversity might not help Democrats as much as they hope

  • >> Nate Cohn, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-05-04 13:33:10 BdST

People wait in line to vote at Lucky Shoals Park, in Norcross, Ga, on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov 3, 2020.

The Census Bureau released two important sets of data last week that have big implications for American politics — and that challenge some prevailing assumptions for both Democrats and Republicans.

The first set of data lays out long-term demographic trends widely thought to favour Democrats: Hispanics, Asian Americans and multiracial voters grew as a share of the electorate over the past two presidential races, and white voters — who historically tend to back the GOP — fell to 71% in 2020 from 73% in 2016.

The other data set tells a second story. Population growth continues to accelerate in the South and the West, so much so that some Republican-leaning states in those regions are gaining more Electoral College votes. The states won by President Joe Biden will be worth 303 electoral votes, down from 306 electoral votes in 2020. The Democratic disadvantage in the Electoral College just got worse again.

These demographic and population shifts are powerfully clarifying about electoral politics in America: The increasing racial diversity among voters isn’t doing quite as much to help Democrats as liberals hope, or to hurt Republicans as much as conservatives fear.

The expanding Democratic disadvantage in the Electoral College underscores how the nation’s growing diversity may not aid Democrats enough to win in places they most need help. Just as often, population growth is concentrated in red states — like Texas and Florida — where the Democrats don’t win nonwhite voters by the overwhelming margins necessary to overcome a Republican advantage.

As for the Republicans, the widely held assumption that the party will struggle as white voters decline as a percentage of the electorate may be more myth than reality. Contrary to what Tucker Carlson says repeatedly on Fox News about the rise of “white replacement theory” as a Democratic electoral strategy, growing racial diversity has not drastically upended the party’s chances. Instead, Republicans face a challenge they often take for granted: white voters.

One way to think about this is to compare today’s electorate with that of the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won in landslides. Democrats, no doubt, have benefited from the increased racial diversity since then: Biden would not have come close to winning Georgia if its voters were as white as in the 1980s. Former President Donald Trump would have probably won reelection if he could have turned the clock back to the ’80s and reduced the clout of nonwhite voters. The wave of Republican-backed laws restricting voting rights may aim to do just that.

Yet even a return to the racial demographics of the 1980s wouldn’t hurt Democrats as much as one might expect. Yes, the November result would have gone from an extremely close win for Biden to an extremely close win for Trump. But Biden would have won more electoral votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, even though nonwhite voters had doubled their share of the electorate from 1984 to when Clinton sought the presidency. Remarkably, Biden’s fairly modest gains among white voters helped him as much as the past 30 to 40 years of demographic shifts did.

Similarly, Bush or Reagan would have still prevailed if he had had to win an electorate that was 29% nonwhite, as opposed to the merely 13% to 15% nonwhite electorates each sought to persuade at the time.

This is not the conventional story of recent electoral history. In the usual tale, the growing racial diversity of the electorate broke the Reagan and Bush majorities and allowed the Democrats to win the national popular vote in seven of the next eight presidential elections.

And yet it is hard to find a single state where increasing racial diversity, even over a 30- or 40-year period, has been both necessary and sufficient for Democrats to flip a state blue. Even where Democrats have needed demographic changes to win, like Georgia and Arizona, the party has also needed significant improvement among white voters to get over the top.

One reason demographic change has failed to transform electoral politics is that increased diversity has come not mainly from Black voters but from Hispanic, Asian American and multiracial ones. Those groups back Democrats, but not always by large margins.

In 2020, Democrats probably won 60% to 65% of voters across these groups. These are substantial margins but small enough that even decades of demographic shifts wind up costing the Republicans only a few percentage points.

The new census data’s finding that the percentage of non-Hispanic white voters in the electorate dropped by about 2 percentage points from 2016 to 2020 might seem like a lot. But with Hispanic, Asian American and multiracial voters representing the entirety of the increase, while the Black share was flat, the growing nonwhite share of the electorate cost Trump only about half a point over a four-year period.

Another factor is the electoral map. The American electoral system rewards flipping states from red to blue, but many Democratic gains among nonwhite voters have been concentrated in the major cities of big and often noncompetitive states. By contrast, many traditional swing states across the northern tier, like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, have had relatively little demographic change.

Democrats’ ability to flip red states has been hampered by another pattern: Republicans’ tendency to fare well among nonwhite voters in red states.

It’s often said that Latino voters aren’t a monolith, and that’s certainly true. While Hispanic voters back Democrats by overwhelming margins in blue states like New York and Illinois, Republicans are often far more competitive among Latinos and members of other non-Black minority groups in red states — including those Democrats now hope to flip like Texas or Florida.

Texas and Florida would be blue if Latinos voted like their counterparts in New York or Illinois. But instead, Latino population growth has not had a strong pro-Democratic punch in the states where the party hoped to land a knockout blow.

At the same time, white voters are easy to overlook as a source of Democratic gains, given that these voters still support Republicans by a comfortable margin. But Democrats probably improved from 39% to 43% among white voters from 1988 to 2020. It’s a significant shift, and perhaps even enough to cover Bush’s margin of victory in the 1988 election, without any demographic change whatsoever.

It’s a little easier to see the significance of Democratic gains among white voters at the state level. According to AP/Votecast data, Biden won white voters in states worth 211 electoral votes. Democrats like Jimmy Carter in 1976, Michael Dukakis in 1988 or John Kerry in 2004 probably didn’t win white voters in states worth much more than 60 electoral votes, based on exit poll and other data.

Biden even won white voters in many of the states where growing diversity is thought to be the main source of new Democratic strength, including California and Colorado. And he also won white voters in many big, diverse states across the North where Republicans used to win and where nonwhite demographic change might otherwise be considered the decisive source of Democratic strength.

According to the AP/Votecast data, Biden won seven crucial states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia — while losing among white voters. Democratic strength among nonwhite voters here was essential to his victory.

But of these states, in only three — Arizona, Nevada and Georgia — did Biden clearly prevail by the margin of the increased racial diversity of the electorate over the last few decades. He did not need to win these states to capture the presidency, but he would not have done so without long-term increases in both nonwhite voting power and Democratic strength among white voters.

The story is quite different in the Northern battlegrounds. White voters still represent more than 80% of the electorate in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the new census data shows. Their nonwhite populations are predominantly Black, and their share fairly steady. Biden won these states so narrowly that their relatively modest demographic shifts were necessary for him to prevail in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

It’s just hard to call it a Great Replacement if Trump could have won in 2020 if only he had done as well among white voters as he did in 2016.


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