The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are caught in a brutal demographic trap. But they can still win in 2016.

Democrats hold a clear demographic edge in 2016. But it’s not a sure thing. (AFP PHOTO)

How big a demographic advantage do Democrats really wield in the 2016 election? A comprehensive new analysis from the Center for American Progress tries to assess this question, and concludes that while the demographic trends are clearly moving in the Democratic Party’s direction, giving Democrats a “clear advantage,” the 2016 election remains “wide open.”

To win, the report concludes, Democrats need to replicate something close to 2008 and 2012 levels of enthusiasm among the core Democratic voter groups that powered Barack Obama’s two victories. That’s hardly a slam dunk, given widespread voter dissatisfaction and a historic pattern that has shown that “time for a change” sentiment works against the party that has held the White House for eight years.

However, the report also concludes that Democrats have some room to maneuver in terms of motivating their core supporters — because the electorate is projected to grow more diverse and otherwise continue evolving in a way that favors Dems. The report projects the minority share of the vote is set to rise by two points, from 27 percent to 29 percent. Meanwhile, the share of the vote among non-college whites (who overwhelmingly tilt Republican) is projected to drop by 2.3 percentage points. And the share of the vote among college educated whites (who tilt somewhat less favorably to the GOP than their non-college counterparts) is projected to edge up by 0.4 points. (The report bases its analysis of the 2012 electorate not on exit polls, but on census and other government data, which are also the basis for the report’s future projections.)

The lead analyst on the report is demographics expert Ruy Teixeira, who famously predicted back in 2002 that an “emerging Democratic majority” was taking shape. That hit a speed bump with George W. Bush’s reelection, and has been complicated by GOP blowouts in the 2010 and 2014 elections, but Obama’s two victories suggest he may have gotten the big picture right. I spoke to Teixeira about the new report and its findings. A transcript of our chat, edited for clarity and length, is below.

PLUM LINE: You define the central question of 2016 as: “Can the Obama coalition survive?” Can you explain what you mean?

RUY TEIXEIRA: The Obama coalition in 2012 consisted of the minority vote (blacks, Latinos, Asians, and those of other races); the millennial generation; and more educated white voters. If you look at the support rates these groups gave to Obama in 2012, and walk those support rates into the probable representation of these voting groups in 2016, the Obama coalition would deliver a third victory for Democrats. It would probably increase their popular vote margin from four to six points.

The question is to what extent can Democrats absorb a certain amount of attrition among those groups.

PLUM LINE: What demographic differences do you project between the 2012 and 2016 electorates?

TEIXEIRA: Our projections indicate that we’re going to have two percentage points more minorities and two points fewer whites. We estimate that the minority share of the vote will go from 27 percent to 29 percent. According to our estimates, the white vote was 73 percent in 2012; we think it will go down to 71 percent.

PLUM LINE: You set forth three major variables as determinants for 2016: How much of the minority vote the Democrat loses compared to Obama; and how the college educated white vote and the non-college white vote break down. You conclude that the shifts in vote share give Democrats more leeway to lose ground among whites.

TEIXEIRA: In the last two elections, the Democrats got 81 percent of the minority vote. That can’t be assumed for 2016. So we are conservative about the minority vote, giving the Democrats in 2016 the average of their share of the minority vote in the last four elections — 78 percent.

In 2012, in our assessment, Democrats lost the white non-college vote by 22 points. We estimate the Democrats’ deficit among the white college vote was 11 points.

Let’s say the Democrats do get 78 percent of the minority vote. We find that the white non-college support for the Republican could actually go up substantially — to the 30 point margin Republicans won in 2014 — and the Democrats would still win the popular vote nationally, if they held their white college support.

PLUM LINE: Your premise is that (due to demographic shifts), even if the Democrat subsides three points among nonwhites, then in order to win, the Republican has to win among noncollege whites by 2014 levels and improve on Mitt Romney’s performance among college educated whites to win?

TEIXEIRA: Correct.

PLUM LINE: But we don’t know whether Hillary Clinton will get the same turnout levels among nonwhites that Obama did. What happens if there is a subsiding in nonwhite support and turnout?

TEIXEIRA: If the white working class support for Republicans goes up in a big way, and minority support levels for Democrats go down, and in addition to that, turnout among minorities tanks enough, then you’re getting very close to tie ball game. There are a lot of moving parts here.

PLUM LINE: You chart two routes to victory for the Republicans, one of which you’re more skeptical of than the other. One is, if the Democrats’ share of the minority vote drops enough, and Republicans can maximize white turnout and performance among white voters, the Republican can win. Or, alternatively, the Republican can win by cutting substantially into the Democratic coalition.

TEIXEIRA: The strategy of focusing on white voters presupposes that Republicans have a lot more room to move among that part of the population.  If their path is just to forget about the minority vote and concentrate on increasing the white vote, they might have to reach the support Reagan got in 1984 — 63 or 64 percent of the white vote. Or white turnout would have to increase enough beyond its normal pattern so the share of the minority vote does not increase by two points. That would need a one-sided mobilization of whites. That’s implausible.

If Republicans run a whites-oriented, hard core conservative campaign, swing-ish, moderate, college-educated whites in the GOP coalition may desert to the other side. And it could also drive up the minority vote for Democrats.

The better path for Republicans would be to speak to the white voters who are already disenchanted — there’s been a relatively slow recovery, and there’s time-for-a-change sentiment and populism out there — without necessarily running a hard core campaign. Republicans could have a more economically oriented populism — without being so forthrightly anti-government, anti-social change, and anti-immigrant — and stand a better chance of appealing to white college educated voters and attenuating the Democratic advantage among minorities. If Republicans could get Democratic support among minorities down to 75 percent — and work both sides of the equation — there are more ways to win.

PLUM LINE: Some polls have suggested that there are reasons to be concerned about Clinton’s support among millennials. Marco Rubio does substantially better among them against her than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz do. 

TEIXEIRA: Our estimate is that in this election, we should have as many eligible voters from the millennial generation as from the Baby Boomers. That’s another potential demographic advantage for Democrats.

You can’t rely on these early polls. The harder data among millennials is, what do they think about the Democratic Party and President Obama? On Obama approval, the millennial generation is still way above other age groups. There’s about a 16-point party identification advantage among them for Democrats. If Democrats can hit roughly 60 percent among them, the way they did in 2012, they can lose a bit of support among other age groups and still win. Because the millennial generation should add 16 million more eligible voters.

PLUM LINE: So is that Democratic majority emerging?

TEIXEIRA: On the presidential level, to a large extent, it already has. It’s not going to be there in every election. And it’s harder to translate down to the state level. But the contours of the Democratic presidential majority that we outlined a number of years ago are pretty much coming into being, and obviously have some power.

Can the Obama coalition survive? The potential is there. But whether it becomes an actuality depends on a variety of other factors: How Hillary Clinton campaigns if she’s the nominee; how the Republican nominee campaigns; what happens with the economy. There are no guarantees. But the shifts in the structure of the electorate are a kind of thumb on the scale.