Politics & Policy

Demography Isn’t Destiny, after All

Election day in Las Vegas, Nev., November 8, 2016. (Reuters photo: David Becker)
Democrats’ favorite political theory turns out to be a comforting illusion.

The idea that “demography is destiny” has long comforted Democrats, convincing them that they will triumph in the end. But the road to the “Permanent Democratic Majority” that John Judis predicted in 2002 sure has involved a lot of Democratic minorities, and now it appears that demography might not be destiny after all.

Two wonks at the centrist Third Way think tank, Lanae Erickson Hatalsky and Jim Kessler, studied the 2016 election results and concluded that Judis’s grandiose vision, which has reassured so many Democrats over the past two decades, is fundamentally flawed in three key ways. First, America’s demographic change is not evenly dispersed among states and voting districts nationwide. Second, over time voters are becoming less loyal to either party. And third, most voters, including the minorities that were supposed to fuel the ascendant Democratic coalition, do not self-identify as liberals.

A big party requires a big tent, which means inviting and running candidates who don’t line up with the party’s orthodoxy on a lot of issues. This is not what progressive Democrats want to hear, and they will no doubt greet the Third Way study with scorn. It’s rather revealing that Hatalsky and Kessler even have to convince the party it has a problem and its current struggles are not a bizarre historical accident.

“From the 2009 high water mark for the Party, Democrats have lost 20 percent of their Senate seats, 25 percent of their House seats, 45 percent of their governors, 53 percent of their state legislative houses, and now the White House,” they write. “Republicans hold the governors’ mansions and both houses of the state legislature in 25 states, while Democrats control all levers of power in just five. . . . In fact, Republicans are now just one state legislature short of being able to call a constitutional convention to consider amendments to our founding document.” If this continues past 2020, the ramifications for redistricting will obviously be enormous.

Then again, Republicans may conclude that the current district lines look pretty good as they are. Right now, the Democrats’ favorite minority demographics simply don’t live in the House districts the party needs to retake the lower chamber: “While safe Democratic House districts are 45 percent white, 70 percent of the population in the swing districts are white. In fact, these swing district more resemble [the Cook Political Report]’s red districts, which are 75 percent white, than they do the districts from which the vast majority of the current House Democratic Caucus hails.” In other words, that “emerging Democratic majority” won’t be emerging in most parts of the country for a long, long time.

A lasting coalition requires firm partisan loyalty, of course, and broad dissatisfaction with the state of the country during the past two administrations has fueled sudden swings in short periods of time. Having endured their share of disappointments, independents just aren’t willing to commit to either of the two major parties. “In 2006, Democrats won Independents by 17 points—and took the majority in the House. In 2010, Republicans won Independents by 18 points—and wrested control of the House back from Democrats,” Hatalsky and Kessler point out. “That’s a 35-point swing in back-to-back midterm Congressional races. In 2008, Obama won Independents by eight points; in 2016, Trump won them by six—a 14-point swing. . . . It’s clear from these massive swings that Independents aren’t simply acting like partisans.”

Perhaps the most jarring observation from the Third Way report is that key parts of the electoral coalition that drove Obama to his two presidential victories are heavily Democratic but not heavily liberal, or at least they don’t identify themselves this way:

Even among the groups that form the Rising American Electorate of Hispanic and non-white voters, none have an outright majority of self-described liberals. Twenty-six percent of voters in the 2016 exit polls called themselves a liberal, strikingly similar to the 23% of African Americans, 28% of Latinos, and 30% of Asian Americans who are liberal. Thirty-nine percent of voters in the exit polls described their ideology as moderate, nearly the same amount as among Latinos (36%) and African Americans (36%), but below the same figure for Asian Americans (48%).

It’s a similar story with Millennials. Yes, 30 percent of Millennial respondents tell Gallup that they self-identify as “liberal” . . . but that’s only a bit more than the 28 percent who describe themselves as “conservative.” Another 40 percent self-identify as “moderate.” Hatalsky and Kessler suggest Democrats are overestimating just how liberal the youngest Americans are: “A major shift in a generation’s views on a handful of issues (i.e. LGBT rights and climate change) is not a proxy for a wholesale embrace of orthodox liberal ideology.”

It’s not surprising that Democrats would fall in love with Judis’s theory; who wouldn’t be attracted to the idea that his success is ultimately preordained? But politics doesn’t work that way. People aren’t drones who can be programmed with a partisan preference for life. The political environment matters; each party has seen its good candidates get defeated in bad years and its hapless candidates carried to victory in good years. Candidate quality, messaging, and scandals matter, and even good get-out-the-vote programs can make a difference at the margins. Moderating your message can get you some wins in districts and states that aren’t usually friendly to your party.

Luckily for Republicans, Democrats don’t seem any closer to realizing they’ll have to make their own destiny, after all.

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