In 2008, Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama outperformed his predecessors John Kerry and Al Gore with virtually every single demographic group, handily defeating his Republican rival John McCain. This success spread to down-ballot races as well: Democrats expanded control over the House and the Senate; they controlled most governorships and state legislatures nationwide.
Many progressives came to believe that these results were not a fluke, that Obama’s coalition represented the future: an emerging Democratic majority that stood to reshape politics as we know it. The logic was simple: most of those who are young, college-educated, women or minorities lean left. Older white men leaned right, but whites were declining as a portion of the electorate due to immigration and interracial unions. Therefore, as the older generation passes away and a younger, more diverse, and more educated cohort steps into the fore, America will become more progressive in an enduring way.
Right now, these predictions are not looking so good. In a virtual inversion of 2008 (only worse), Republicans control both chambers of Congress and stand to expand their control of the Senate in 2018 (2020 may not look much better for Democrats either). Republicans dominate state legislatures and governorships nationwide ― bodies which arguably matter more to people’s everyday lives than the federal government.
Meanwhile, Democrats lost perhaps their best chance in a generation to fundamentally reshape the Supreme Court. And the new Republican administration seems committed to rolling back many of the signature accomplishments of the most charismatic and successful Democratic president since LBJ.
In the midst of such a bleak reality, it may be tempting to hold on to the faith that the demographic majority thesis remains essentially sound: Trump is an anomaly, certain to self-destruct, ushered into power as a final, desperate act of defiance by a segment of the population that knows its time is up.
But as a matter of fact, the trend actually seems to be going the opposite direction. If anything, it seems as though progressives may be on the “wrong side of history.”
From Ballot Counting to Exit Polls
The Democratic coalition rapidly deteriorated after the 2008 election. The Democrats’ 2010 midterm losses were historic: they lost the House in the most sweeping Congressional reversal of the preceding 62 years. The hole only got deeper in 2014, as the Senate also came under Republican control.
Between 2008 and 2016, there was a dramatic downward trajectory across presidential races as well:
In 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain by 192 Electoral College votes and 8.54 million popular votes. In 2012 he beat Mitt Romney by 126 electoral votes and 3.48 million popular votes. Obama’s margin of victory, while objectively comfortable, represented a 34% decline in his electoral dominance as compared to 2008, and a 59 percent decline in the size of his popular vote lead.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.87 million. Even if she had won the presidency on this basis, it would have marked another steep decline in Democrats’ margin of victory ― down nearly 18 percent from Barack Obama’s 2012 performance, and a whopping 66 percent as compared to 2008. It would have marked the narrowest popular vote margin of any winning candidate since the 2000 election (for comparison, Bush won by 3.48 million votes in 2004).
However, Clinton’s popular vote lead came overwhelmingly from densely-populated and left-leaning states like California and New York. Relative to Barack Obama, Clinton underperformed in key Midwestern states, ultimately losing the Electoral College by 74 votes and costing the Democrats the White House.
Exit-polls are a great resource for understanding why the emerging Democratic majority thesis failed so spectacularly over the last ten years. In fact, they are specifically designed to help pundits and analysts make sense of electoral outcomes and produce narrative frames.
Relying on New York Times exit-poll data from the last three midterm (2006, 2010, 2014) and presidential cycles (2008, 2012, 2016), we can identify longitudinal trends across demographic dimensions such as gender, race, age, income, educational attainment and ideological alignment. As one might imagine given the Democrats’ breathtaking electoral collapse, there is basically nothing but bad news.
Despite these trends, many popular narratives about the 2016 election seem to reinforce the concept of an emerging Democratic majority.
For instance, there is a common misconception that Trump was ushered into power by old, white, economically-disenfranchised men. However, according to the exit-polling, Trump actually did worse than Romney among whites and seniors, but outperformed him among blacks, Asians, Hispanics and young people.
While Democrats lost a lot of ground among poorer Americans, it would be a mistake to interpret these as Trump’s base: he won a plurality of every income bracket above $50k (as of 2015, U.S. median household income was around $56.6k).
Although evangelicals turned out in record numbers to support Trump, he also won more non-Christian and non-religious voters than any Republican since the 2000 election.
However the biggest surprise of 2016 probably relates to gender:
The first major-party female candidate for president, running against a notorious misogynist, captured the Democrats’ lowest share of female voters since 2004. And although Trump also got a lower share of female voters than his last three Republican predecessors, he nonetheless won over a majority of white women.
Granted, Trump’s candidacy and campaign were exceptional. However, it would be a mistake to think of these outcomes as aberrations rather than the culmination of a long-running trend. Contrary to the emerging Democratic majority thesis, there does not seem to be any demographic category with which Democrats are progressively improving. However, there are lots of them on the Republican side:
Democrats may try to assure themselves that things are not so bleak. The party still pulls in nearly 90% of the black vote, two-thirds of Hispanic or Asian votes, and majorities among racial and ethnic “others.” They continue to capture a majority of women and young people. While the exit polls show that Republicans have been consistently chipping away at this coalition, the trend does not suggest the GOP will actually win majorities from any of these groups anytime soon.
But here’s the rub: Republicans actually don’t need to outright win ― or even come close to winning ― any of these demographic categories in order to come out ahead. If minority turnout is low, Republicans win. If Democrats fail to capture 2012 levels of black, Hispanic and Asian votes, they lose. It doesn’t really matter if lost votes go to Republicans or independents ― the outcome is the same.
And the trend is not looking so good:
Democrats rely heavily on irregular voters to win national contests, particularly during years with presidential elections. However, irregular voters tend to stay home unless they are inspired. Races between the lesser of two evils tend not to be sufficiently compelling. And even when these voters truly believe in a candidate or cause, they can be easily discouraged from going to the polls.
Democrats’ ability to motivate and mobilize this base has been in freefall since 2008. Midterm participation dropped every cycle of Obama’s tenure, with rates in the 2014 election among the lowest in 70 years. Participation in the presidential elections dropped every cycle as well, with the 2016 election pulling in the fewest voters in 20 years.
The perils of identity politics
LGBTQ Americans comprise up to four percent of the electorate, Muslim and Jewish Americans combined amount to around three percent, blacks and Hispanics around 10-12 percent each, Asian Americans four percent. And of course, there is some overlap between these categories so they are not completely additive.
Meanwhile, whites amount to no less than 70% of the electorate (and often more). This means Democrats can get 100% of the votes from all other groups combined, and still not be anywhere near a majority overall unless they get at least a third of the remaining white vote.
But again, Democrats do not have unanimous support from any of these populations, meaning they’ll need to compensate by drawing in more whites.
This reality seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future: 2008 probably marked the highest levels of turnout and support that Democrats can plausibly aspire towards with black people. 2012 may have marked the “floor” for Republicans among Hispanic voters, given the party actually gained in 2016 with Trump as their nominee.
However, these estimates have so far assumed that populations are evenly distributed across the country. Instead, however, minority votes tend to be concentrated in relatively safe states and voting districts. Most of the “favorable” demographic shifts for Democrats have similarly occurred in states that are basically non-competitive.
So long as this trend holds, Democrats stand to benefit little, if at all, in terms of Congressional seats or Electoral College votes regardless of how many more Americans happen to fall into Democratic-leaning categories. Therefore, to win statewide or national races, Democrats would have to capture an even larger share of the white vote than the raw electoral share data would suggest ― particularly in suburban and rural areas which tend to have higher turnout (despite their lower populations).
Finally, demographic changes present an opportunity to Democrats only to the extent that they can indefinitely maintain or expand their current levels of support among the educated, Asians or Hispanics, etc. Should these groups grow more ideologically diverse as they expand, as populations typically do― or should citizens of mixed race or ancestry come to identify as “white” and vote more like “whites” than “minorities” ― Republicans would actually benefit more than Democrats from the projected population shifts.
Adjusting for relative participation rates, internal disagreement and uneven geographic distribution ― in practice, a winning Democratic coalition would likely require a ratio of at least one non-minority white for each minority (i.e. LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, black, Hispanic, and/or Asian) constituent. Yet Democratic support among white voters has plummeted in every election since 2008. This trend is not sustainable if progressives aspire toward any kind of majority coalition in any foreseeable future.
Obama’s election was not the first time Democrats have prophesied a permanent majority ― similar claims were made prior to the ascendance of Nixon, and then again just before Reagan took the country by storm. This track record alone should inspire deep skepticism about deterministic and epochal political predictions.
Progressives don’t have any kind of “lock” on the future; in the near-term, absent radical change, the situation may even grow worse for them. But Republicans should hardly grow complacent with their apparent advantage either: In U.S. politics, overwhelming majorities tend to be unstable, and nothing is truly inevitable until it actually happens.