The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Democratic Party was more racially diverse in 1996 than the Republican Party is today

The Trump era seems to be speeding partisan shifts.

In this image from video, people from across the U.S. sing the National Anthem during the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday. (Democratic National Convention via AP) (AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Subtlety is not something for which politicians are known, much less political parties, so it was not particularly surprising to see the Democratic convention kick off on Monday with a deliberate, unmissable emphasis on diversity. The event began with a choir from around the country singing the national anthem — a choir made up of children and adults covering the breadth of America’s racial and ethnic diaspora. The lineup of speakers and introduced guests was similarly diverse, a pointed reflection of the country and, by itself, an intentional contrast to President Trump and his politics.

It’s important not to lose sight, though, of the fact that the Democratic Party itself is both far more diverse than its polar opposite but, also, than the country itself.

Pew Research Center has tracked the demographics of the parties — and the partisanship of demographic groups — since the 1990s. The evolution of its data over time provide a lot of insight into the current political moment.

Take race and ethnicity, for example. In 1996, 85 percent of the country was non-Hispanic White. Nearly all of the Republican Party — 94 percent — was White, as was three-quarters of the Democratic Party. Most of the non-White Democratic population was Black.

(In the analyses below, we’re lumping party-leaning independents in with members of the party themselves. Pew breaks out hard partisans separately, if you’re interested, but from the standpoint of understanding political trends, merging partisans with partisan-leaning independents is in this case more informative.)

In the most recent Pew assessment, looking at 2018 and 2019 (we’ll use 2019 below, for simplicity’s sake), we see that about 7-in-10 Americans are White, compared to 6-in-10 Democrats and 8-in-10 Republicans. Black Democrats now make up less than half of the non-White segment of the party.

Notice one key point: the Republican Party as currently constituted is more densely White than the Democratic Party was a quarter of a century ago. The horizontal dotted line allows for comparison between the two data points.

One reason that the Democratic Party is more heavily non-White is that non-White Americans are more likely to identify as Democratic. That includes 8-in-10 Black Americans who are either Democrats or independents who lean Democratic. Partisanship among Hispanics has been similarly static, with about 6-in-10 identifying as Democratic or Democratic-leaning. The biggest shift has been among Asian Americans, who were once about evenly split by party but now identify overwhelmingly as Democrats. Since 2016 (marked with a vertical dashed line), Asian Americans have become 16 points more Democratic on net, though that is at least in part a function of volatility.

You’ll notice that, after Whites were about evenly split between the parties in 2007, White Americans are 11 points more likely to identify as Republican or Republican-leaning independent.

That masks another shift that manifested in 2016: the evolution of political views among Whites depending on education.

According to Pew’s data, both non-college-educated Whites and Whites with a college degree were more Republican than Democratic 25 years ago. Since 2007, though, non-college-educated Whites have become increasingly more Republican, a trend that predates Trump’s emergence in politics (as data from Gallup reinforces).

Since 2016 — since Trump, probably — college-educated Whites have become more likely to identify as Democrats. In 2016, they were 4 points more likely to identify as Democratic; now, the gap is 12 points.

Part of this shift is a function of college-educated White women turning against the GOP. Overall, women are about as heavily Democratic as they were in 2016, though, at the risk of cherry-picking, women are 6 points more likely to identify as Democratic on net than they were in 2015.

A central part of Trump’s base is White Christians, particularly evangelical Protestants. Less than half the country is made up of White Christians at this point, according to Pew’s data, but that group makes up two-thirds of the Republican Party. This is central to Trump’s appeal, as the New York Times documented earlier this month: White Christians, particularly evangelicals, concerned about their waning influence in American politics and society.

Most Democrats are Christian, but barely. Nearly 4-in-10 are religiously unaffiliated.

One place the parties are fairly similar is in age distribution. As the American population has aged, so have the parties — subtly. About half of Democrats are aged 50 or younger, compared to about 4-in-10 Republicans.

This, though, also overlaps with race and ethnicity. Less than half of Americans under the age of 10 are White. Younger Americans generally are less likely to be White, as Census Bureau data show.

The Democratic convention is about America as it looks now. But it’s also deliberately about the America that’s emerging, one which looks like that choir. One that increasingly doesn’t look much like the Republican Party.