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Obama's 2012 Chances and Democratic Demographic Dreaming

Obama's 2012 Chances and Democratic Demographic Dreaming

By Sean Trende - November 30, 2011


The latest report from Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the progressive Center for American Progress contains a thoughtful examination of President Obama's re-election chances. There's an awful lot packed into the 60 pages of text, but the basic thrust is as follows: We should expect the non-white share of the electorate to grow at least 2 percent from the 2008 election, padding Obama's base line. If he can hold serve among either the white working class or college-educated whites, he should be able to pull out a victory, even amid troubled economic times.

In truth, the report is substantially less bullish on Obama's re-election chances than some of the articles analyzing it have suggested (see Dan Balz here and Michael Tomasky here). It acknowledges that the president has a “tight needle to thread” and that “Americans will be open to replacing President Obama with an even-tempered, nonthreatening GOP leader focused on the economy.” In other words, the triumphalism of Teixeira’s “Emerging Democratic Majority” argument of the early 2000s is decidedly tempered throughout the report, and with good reason. After all, the GOP just won its second-largest share of seats in the House of Representatives since 1928, with an electorate that had the second-smallest share of non-Hispanic white voters in history. In retrospect, those repeated “last gasps” of the GOP coalition (1994, 2002, 2004, 2010) look a lot more like “steady breathing.”

But the optimistic tones in Teixeira and Halpin’s piece need to be tempered even further. The “demographics versus economics” debate that Teixeira and Halpin suggest will determine the outcome of the next election isn’t a 50-50 proposition. It is weighted heavily toward the economics side, and I think it’s unlikely that demographics will save the president. There are three critical observations here:

1. The minority population may not grow substantially from 2008 through 2012.

Probably the central feature of the Teixeira/Halpin argument is that the nonwhite share of the electorate should have grown 2 percent by 2012, reducing the white share of the electorate to 72 percent (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll shorten “non-Hispanic whites” to “whites”). This is certainly possible, as the white share of the electorate has contracted by 2 percent, on average, in every presidential election since 1980.

But it hasn’t been a straight line. In 1992, the white share of the electorate actually increased by 2 percent, in response to H. Ross Perot’s candidacy and the economic contraction. In 2004, the white share of the electorate declined by 4 percent, in part due to the growth of the Latino population.

So why might we expect the demographic changes in the electorate to be more like 1992 than 2004? First, the Latino share of the electorate has actually remained stagnant for much of the past decade. In 2004, Latino voters comprised 8.24 percent of the electorate. In 2006, they were 7.94 percent of the electorate. In 2008, they were 8.38 percent of the electorate. In 2010, they were once again around 8 percent. In other words, for a variety of reasons, the surge in Latino population has not translated into a surge in Latino voting power (and remember, there was a huge registration and get-out-the-vote drive in 2008 among Latinos, both in the primaries and the general election).

And while the headline from the release of the decennial census was the surge in the Latino share of the populace, the lesser-known truth is that Latino immigration has largely stopped over the past several years. It may have even reversed. There are multiple reasons for this, including the United States’ deep recession and slow recovery, as well as the continued modernization of the Mexican economy. In other words, to the extent that Latino immigration is what accounts for the increase in the Latino share of the electorate from 1992 through 2004, we should not expect it to do so from 2008 through 2012.

But while the Latino share of the electorate was stable from 2004 to 2008, the white share of the electorate nevertheless decreased. Why would this be? The answer is simple: The increase in the non-white share of the electorate from 2004 to 2008 was largely driven by a surge in African-American voters. The African-American share of the electorate is typically between 9 and 11 percent. In 2008, it was 13 percent, by far the largest vote share in history.

The problem for the president is that he has probably maxed out among these voters -- the African-American share of the electorate in 2008 was about 10 percent more than their share of the population as a whole. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of African-American voters declined somewhat in 2012. This isn’t because African-Americans are disappointed in Obama -- his approval among African-American voters remains stratospheric -- but rather because it will probably be much more difficult to energize marginal African-American voters with the prospect of re-electing the first black president than it was to energize them with the idea of electing the first black president.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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