By Uma Purushothaman*
It is often said that demography is destiny. This is certainly true of US elections where demographic changes are poised to have a telling impact on the US elections in 2016. Demographics in the US could be anything, from sex, race, income levels, people supporting LGBT rights, etc. One can often predict which way the elections will go based on how different demographics are voting. Statistics showing how different groups voted in 2012 are useful in this context. 52% of men voted for Mitt Romney as opposed to 45% for Obama. Among women, 55% voted for Obama while 44% voted for Romney. Only 39% of Whites voted for Obama, with 59% voting for Romney.
African American (93%), Hispanics (71%) and Asians (73%) voted overwhelmingly for Obama. If one were to examine voting by age, young voters voted for Obama while older people voted for Romney. There was a difference in how rich and poor people voted as well. People with less than $50,000 annual income voted for Obama while those with higher incomes voted for Romney. People with college degrees have usually voted for Democrats as opposed to those with lower levels of education who vote Republican. While these statistics need not necessarily be repeated in 2016, there is no doubt that they do point to the broader voting trends.
The demographic group which will have the most impact on the elections are likely to be people of colour. It is projected that by 2043, the majority of Americans will be people of colour. Therefore, winning over this demographic will be crucial for any party wanting to win the presidency and the Congress. The archetypal White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) is becoming a shrinking part of what is becoming a more diverse American electorate. In 2012, for instance, whites were 72% of the electorate, 13% were African Americans, Latinos were 11% and Asians and others were 6%. It is estimated that in 2016, the electorate will be 70 percent white, 13 percent African-American, 11 percent Latino, and six percent Asian/Other. This change in demographics is not only because of more relaxed immigration laws, but also because some groups like the Hispanics who came to the US in the 1990s are going through their own version of the baby boom. This is a demographic group which has in recent times voted for the Democrats. The GOP will have to work really hard to draw them away from the Democrats in 2016.
Women are another major demographic group. The likelihood of women voting for Republicans has consistently declined since 2006. This trend is unlikely to change in 2016 as a majority of women are now pro-choice with the GOP still stuck in its pro-life stance. The section of the population which supports LGBT rights has also grown. In 2003, 47 percent of the American population supported equal rights for LGBT people as compared to 57 percent in 2013. Given the GOP’s positions on same sex marriage, 5 those supporting LGBTs rights will likely vote Democrat in 2016.
The Republican voter base still consists of white, rich and older voters. Further, the group with which the GOP does best—whites without college degrees— is the only one poised to shrink in 2016. The Republican Party’s inability to broaden its support base by reaching out to minorities, for instance, will be a significant impediment to its electoral success. While in the 1990s, the GOP lost the Hispanic votes to the Democrats, in 2000 and 2004, George W Bush rebounded, winning 35% and 44% of the Hispanic vote. His ability to speak Spanish and his roots in Texas, a Spanish speaking state might have been factors in this. Similarly, the Republicans do have a chance at splitting the Hispanic vote if they nominate a Marco Rubio who is of Hispanic origin or Spanish-speaking Jeb Bush who has a Mexican American wife or someone less aggressive about illegal immigration. Similarly, some African Americans could vote for the Republicans if Ben Carson is on the GOP ticket.
The good news for the GOP is that a group they have won consistently i.e. older voters are increasing in the electorate as the US is aging. This is also a section which is more likely to vote than youngsters. But this alone might not be enough to tilt the scales towards the GOP. Though demographics favour the Democrats, whether this will turn into an electoral advantage for the party would depend on how much support the eventual Presidential candidate is likely to whip up among these demographic groups. Also, sometimes changes in the non white population alone might not be enough for Democrats to win Electoral College votes. Hispanic votes are overrepresented in some safe states like California and Texas and are underrepresented in swing states.
Also, demographic changes are occurring at different paces in different states. While some states do have more non white populations, sometimes this does not change the nature of the electorate. This is because oftentimes many people are illegal immigrants who do not have the right to vote. Traditionally, Hispanic and African American voters have had low voter turnout rates. Another factor to be kept in mind is that demographics are often fluid. For instance, an African American male who would normally be considered a Democrat voter might vote for the Republicans if he is has strong views opposing LGBT rights. But a simulation study by the Center for American Progress shows that by 2016, given the rising share of people of colour in the electorate, if Democrats are able to maintain support among voters of colour at the same levels they achieved in 2012, then they will more easily win states that were only narrowly won in 2012.
Thus, it seems that demographics favour the Democrats in the forthcoming elections, especially if they are able to make sure there is a huge turnout among the youth and people of colour. But one must also remember that the Democrat nominee will in a sense have to run against historical patterns: the same party rarely wins the White House after keeping it for two consecutive terms. But the shift in demographic patterns could just change this mold.
*Uma Purushothaman is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. This article was first published in the ORF US Election Monitor