What effect will demographic shifts, made unavoidably clear in the 2012 presidential election, have on US politics in the long term, asks Taeku Lee
While the roar and rancour from the US presidential election has subsided, scholars and pundits have set upon a new joust over what to make of it all. In 2008, there was a clear and jubilant narrative in the immediate aftermath of the election. In a public spectacle perhaps not unlike a royal wedding, Americans collectively basked in the warm afterglow of having elected the country's first African American president. Some even dared to hope for the dawn of a post-racial nation in which racial animus would be the vestige of a regrettable past and not an everyday fact of life for minorities. Notwithstanding the invidious ugliness that has surrounded Barack Obama's presidency since 2008, the legitimating story of that election was largely a tale of the triumph of a singularly prepossessing politician and the sweeping grassroots movement his candidacy animated.
Yet set against the backdrop of these hopes and huzzahs about Obama and history in the making was the steady hand of the fundamentals of election forecasting. The 2008 election appeared to conform to the diktat of forecasting models developed by political scientists like Robert Erikson, Douglas Hibbs, Michael Lewis-Beck and Helmut Norpoth. According to various felicitous mixes of mainly economic indicia (such as GDP, unemployment, federal spending and subjective assessments of the economy), Obama was expected to win, and so he did.
The 2012 contest saw discernibly less alchemy and agreement in the performance of these forecasting models. Some predicted victory for Mitt Romney; others saw a win for Obama. Most expected a very close election. Importantly, Obama's decisive victory materialised in spite of economic recovery from the Great Recession that, by any reasonable measure, was slow to sputtering. Without this foundation stone of economic fundamentals, the first news leads after the election results attributed Obama's victory to situational factors such as former President Bill Clinton's tireless campaigning, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's endorsement of Obama's leadership during Hurricane Sandy's challenges and even to Romney's mystifying descent on Pennsylvania (a state
that was comfortably in Obama's grasp) just days before election Tuesday.
The storyline has now turned away from the fortune and folly of individual politicians and natural disasters to speculation about whether the tectonic plates of American politics have shifted for the long term. Much on everyone's minds is whether 2012 marks a new alignment in the electorate, one that foreshadows dim prospects for the future of the Republican party in national elections. Of course, electoral realignments, of the critical sort that American political scientist VO Key first pinpointed in 1955, are rare. If we believe Walter Dean Burnham's periodicity, they occur only every 30 to 36 years.
Yet speculation about a partisan realignment is rife because of the deepening of a racial divide that was first noticed in 2008 and was repeated in 2012. According to national exit polls, in the presidential election Obama received 93 percent of the African American vote, 73 percent of the Asian American vote, and 71 percent of the Latino vote, with only 39 percent of white Americans voting for the Democrat. These figures stand out in boldface when compared to past elections. Even in 2008, the exit-poll figures for Latinos and Asian Americans were at the lower levels of 67 percent and 62 percent respectively. By comparison, a somewhat higher figure of 43 percent of whites reported voting for Obama in 2008. Moreover, white voters are shrinking as a share of the US electorate. As recently as 1992, whites made up 87 percent of election-day voters; by 2012, the figure plummeted to 72 percent. Taken together, 2008 and 2012 represent the only two elections in US political history in which a candidate won the White House without securing a majority (or, in elections with a notable third party candidate, a plurality) of the white vote.
The reach of this growing diversity extends even to other decompositions of the electorate that, at least in media representations, initially appear without a racial cast. Popular accounts of the 2008 election, for instance, lavished a great deal of attention on the putatively decisive role of independents and young voters. In 2012, media reports and campaign strategists were transfixed by the women's vote and enticed to see a pivotal influence of Catholics and, again, young voters. If these other demographic sub-groups held sway over the outcome of recent elections, one might be tempted to carry through the implication that a new alignment, such as it is, is not solely defined by race. A closer look at the numbers, however, suggests otherwise. Independent voters were vaunted in 2008, for instance, but only 47 percent of white independents voted for Obama, while roughly 70 percent of non-white independents voted Democratic. In 2012, while Obama carried female voters by an 11-point margin, most of that support came from women of color. Only 42 percent of white women voted for Obama while supermajorities of black, Latino, and Asian women voted Democrat. The story of Catholics and young adults is much the same.
To be sure, there has always been a racial divide between blacks and whites in the American demoi at least since the New Deal coalition of the 1930s. What is new is the seeming crystallisation of Latinos and Asian Americans as solid partners in a new pan-racial coalition of Democrats. Further fueling pronouncements of a realigned electorate is the possibility that the visible breach between white voters and non-white voters in the last two elections is just the tip of the iceberg on nearly half a century of steady and sweeping transformation of America's demographic landscape. Changes in US immigration law and global migration patterns since the mid-1960s have spurred an influx of immigrants to the US on a scale unseen since the early 20th century. One in four Americans today is either an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. These contemporary immigrants come from Asian, African, Caribbean, and Latin American shores, rather than from across the North Atlantic. Up until the first decade of the 20th century, about 90 percent of new migrants to the US set sail from European shores. Today, roughly 80 percent of new migrants are Latino and Asian.
What's more, the prospects of a ruling pan-racial Democratic majority are further cemented by several additional demographic factors. Perhaps most importantly, demographers expect this swell of immigration to continue. With seemingly inexorable force, America appears destined to become a ‘majority-minority' nation, in which whites will cease to be a numeric majority, sometime around mid-century. It is already the case that the majority of newborns in America are non-white. In addition, the ledger of demographic diversity is further expanding with the rising prevalence of racial admixture. Exogamy rates continue to rise, with 15 percent of all new marriages in the US occurring between spouses who cross racial or ethnic lines. Political polls, to boot, show that multi-racial Americans exhibit Democratic loyalties at rates comparable to Latinos and Asians. Finally, patterns of naturalisation and vote registration have yet to catch up to demographic changes. Latinos and Asian Americans, who were respectively 10 percent and 3 percent of voters in 2012 according to exit polls, are 16 percent and 6 percent of the total US population in the 2010 census. Thus, the political voice of these emerging groups will only grow as immigrant Latinos and Asians naturalise as citizens and register to vote at rates comparable to their US-born peers.
Reasons for caution
So these figures give us some reasons for believing that the earth beneath the American political landscape shook, and forcefully so, with the 2012 elections. But is politics really so determined by demographics? I believe there are at least three firm grounds from which we might view bold pronouncements of an electoral realignment with a dose of caution.
The first of these grounds for caution is that if indeed there has been a new alignment, it has happened without political parties. At least since the publication of the classic work, The American Voter, by Angus Campbell and his colleagues at the University of Michigan in 1960, it is a received wisdom approximating a self-evident truth that the political behavior of an individual begins with his or her identification with a political party. Party identification starts the funnel of causality that ends with a vote for Barack Obama or a vote for Mitt Romney. Yet for Latinos and Asian Americans, the emerging segments of the electorate who seem to be driving this realignment, there is a profound reluctance to explicitly affiliate with a party, even as that reluctance is set in paradoxical relief against a visible willingness to vote for one party's candidate. Data from the 2006 Latino National Survey and the 2008 National Asian American Survey reveals that when asked whether they identify as Democrats, Republicans or independents, more than one out of three Latinos and Asian Americans fail to identify with any of these categories, opting to express responses like ‘I don't know', ‘none of the above', ‘no preference', ‘I just don't think in terms of parties' or refuse to answer the question altogether. If self-identified independents (just shy of one in five for both Latinos and Asians) are put in the same company with non-identifiers, non-partisans comprise a healthy majority of both Latinos and Asian Americans.
These high rates of non-partisanship evoke a second ground for caution. While demographic shifts can and do inscribe the structural foundations for long-term change, the actual etching is done by institutions and individuals within them. An enduring realignment will not result without a more active, assertive effort to win the hearts and minds and secure the durable membership of Latinos and Asian Americans. Surveys show that levels of mobilisation from campaigns, parties and candidates for these groups fall far shy of levels for the general (non-Latino and non-Asian) electorate. This is a particular element of mundane, everyday politics in between election years that neither the Democratic nor Republican parties have undertaken in full with respect to Latinos and Asian Americans.
Here, the Democratic party is clearly better positioned to succeed in wooing Latinos and Asian Americans on a more permanent basis. To a significant extent, at least some of President Obama's success in deepening his support among these electoral segments in 2012 can probably be credited to explicit, visible decisions such as high-profile appointments (such as Sonia Sotomayor, Hilda Solis, Ken Salazar, Jim Yong Kim, Gary Locke, Eric Shinseki and Steven Chu), public positions against voter identification laws and Arizona's controversial anti-immigration law, and unilateral action through an executive order that enabled undocumented children of immigrants to remain in the country without fear of deportation. Of course, countering these moves are many other signs of poor performance, such as the failure to push through comprehensive immigration reform, stewarding an economic crisis that has taken a disproportionate toll on African Americans, Asians, and Latinos, and an average of roughly 400,000 deportations each year. For their part, the Republican Party – or at least some of its outré, off-centre candidates – did itself no favours by taking positions and making statements that appeared hostile to visible minorities, immigrants, non-Christians and women.
This seemingly begs the question of why the Democratic party has been circumspect about embarking on a full-throttle campaign to consolidate a pan-racial base of African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Jews, LGBTs and the white working class. The simple answer is that the road is not paved with gold so much as it is strewn with nails. As Paul Frymer argues in Uneasy Alliances, the Democratic party and its candidates run the risk of alienating its white and more ideologically moderate supporters by running far to the left, where the preferences of most African Americans lie. It is important here to keep in mind that, while Obama received only 39 percent of the white vote in 2012, whites still constituted a majority (56 percent) of all Americans who voted for him. Ronald Reagan masterfully deployed the trope of a Democratic party that espoused dated ‘liberalism' and catered to ‘special interests', and efforts to more fully welcome Latinos and Asian Americans could leave the Democrats vulnerable to similar attacks in 2014 and 2016. In fact, it is partly in response to this trope that Bill Clinton and those affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council began to espouse a revamped pro-business agenda and embraced the rhetoric of personal responsibility.
A third and, for now at least, final ground for caution about electoral realignment is that race may not continue to prevail as the controlling divide in American politics. In specifics, it is at least plausible that ruptures in future elections will divide along the lines of regionalism, religion, nationalism, generation, gender, sexual orientation, or some other dynamic. The Birther movement, for instance, did not challenge the legitimacy of Obama's rule on racial grounds, but rather by invoking doubts about the president's citizenship and religious authenticity. Or to take another example, one of the least publicised findings from the 2012 exit polls is that LGBT voters turned out to support Obama in commanding numbers (76 percent), suggesting a more diverse Democratic coalition than is usually assumed. And as a third example, one of the first organised responses to the Republican party's losses in 2012 was a short-lived secessionist movement in various states around the country. There is an alarming fixity to the coastal and Midwest states that are consistently Democrat blue and the rest that are equally consistently Republican red; a geography that not only adumbrates the possibility of regional rifts in future years, but also eerily resembles the partition of the United States into free and slave states in our regrettable past.
A complex landscape
To further complicate matters, all of these considerations set aside the particulars of the historical moment that America is currently in. The American political landscape today – irrespective of demographic change and whether an electoral realignment necessarily ensues from it – is riven by policy disputes and ideological clashes. Dancing around the margins of our ascriptive differences are the constraints of party polarisation and legislative gridlock; a hopelessly fragile, interdependent global economy; debates over whether people, states, or campaign dollars are the proper units of voice and influence in an election; disagreements on whether America's common prosperity is better secured with less or more government; and even the most timeless of bones of contention, the battle of reason over faith.
No single election or singular president will definitively eradicate these constraints. Politics is, as Max Weber dubbed it, about “the slow boring of hard boards”. And as I see it, or would like to see it, the ascendancy of either political party will ultimately depend on its sustained efforts to lead and to secure the public trust on these sorts of hard boards.
|Fellowship in action|
Vote for policies
Before the 2010 UK general election, Matt Chocqueel-Mangan FRSA identified a concern. Despite voting in several general elections, he still struggled to identify what each party offered and what policies they supported. To help solve this problem, Matt – a web producer – created Vote for Policies, a website to help voters compare policies from the main parties. "We didn't do any marketing in 2010," Matt said. "We just let people share their results on Facebook and Twitter, which worked really well. By the end of the campaign, more than 275,000 people had taken the survey."
Matt was awarded non-financial expertise through Catalyst and produced a version of the site for the 2012 US presidential election. "Unfortunately, we didn't get much traction in the US," Matt said. "We released the site very late and, even though we did far more work in terms of promotion, we didn't quite get the results to show for it."
He thinks this is partly to do with the relationship between candidates and their parties. "Presidential candidates aren't leaders of their party, so a tool comparing party policies needs to address that clearly," he said. "There isn't much of an alternative as there are no candidate manifestos to draw on either, but it was a valuable lesson. Overall, we learned a lot about accommodating different political systems and cultures."
Matt is now working on a number of opportunities where the model could be adapted for elections in developing countries.
Find out more at Vote for Policies.