Thursday, April 11, 2013

Demography is Destiny

You’ve seen the stories:  the Democrats are destined to have a demographic lock on politics for decades to come, due mostly to a rise in liberalism among young voters and a huge wave of Hispanic immigrants. Online forums are teeming with articles proclaiming a liberal dynasty towering over a GOP that will control little more than Utah and the Deep South.

Bloggers are eagerly anticipating two terms of Hillary Clinton, two terms of Chelsea Clinton, and two terms of Malia Obama. But is this true, or hype? Long term predictions tend not to pan out.  The Internet lives in the Permanent Present Tense. The web is obsessed with the new, and it’s difficult to do research on anything more than a couple of years old. Files are archived, web sites die and servers shutdown; recent history becomes ancient history.

If we turn back the clock just eight years to 2004, we find progressives were in despair. George Bush had just won a second term in the White House, and the future looked bleak.  The post election demographic picture was dire; a widely quoted article in the Los Angeles Times by Ronald Brownstein and Richard Rainey pointed out that Mr. Bush won 97 of the nation’s 100 fastest growing counties. Those exurbs and edge cities were, it seemed, the American future, and Democrats need not apply.

Democrats were further doomed by championing what many observers believed to be “unsupportable” social issues. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled same-sex unions legal, the left cheered but the right had public opinion on their side and they hit back. In 2004, 11 states added Defense of Marriage provisions to their constitutions, defining marital bliss as the sole provenance of ONE man and ONE woman. In each of those states, Mr. Bush enjoyed a hefty voter turnout bounce. Social issues drove votes—straight to the GOP. The first thirty times same-sex unions were on the ballot in the states, our team lost.

Today, the GOP “electoral lock” is more of a lock out.  The Democrats, it seems, have it made. Hispanic voters turned the southwest blue, younger voters are waxing liberal, and core urban centers are sprouting huge liberal voting constituencies with high powered incomes and graduate degrees. Public opinion on same-sex marriage shifted in our favor.  In 2012, provisions supporting same-sex marriage passed in three states and a Defense of Marriage provision was defeated in another.  Support for same-sex union ballot measures now comfortably bolster Democratic turnout. 

Still, our Democratic “lock” relies on some long term demographic trends that may not hold.

  1)      Democrats are relying on huge African American voting blocks in key swing states (especially Michigan and Pennsylvania).  To carry Michigan, we rely on gigantic victory margins with African American voters in Detroit (Wayne County) to counter massive losses in rural counties. But Detroit’s African American population plummeted from 868,992 in 2000 to 737,943 in 2010. Wayne County’s Democratic voting engine is sputtering. Mr. Obama captured 656,303 votes in Wayne County 2008, but just 595,253 in 2012. Michigan’s African American population is declining for the first time in the state’s history. 

More than one million blacks in the south were born in the north, and while the nation’s black population grew by 1.75 million between 2000 and 2010 75% of that growth occurred in the south.  This shift is large enough to cost us key northern swing states like Michigan, where voting margins between the parties is tight, but is likely not large enough to swing the very red south to blue.

  2)      Democrats are relying on sustained Hispanic migration for years to come. Immigration tends to come in waves. My grandparents were part of a wave that populated a huge swath of the Eastern Seaboard with Italian surnames. But immigrant waves tend to crest as quickly as they rise, and Spanish, not Italian, is now spoken on Brooklyn streets and alleys. But there is considerable evidence that Hispanic migration to the United States has peaked.

Border crossings by undocumented Mexican nationals, the driving force behind the need for a Dream Act, have plummeted. The number of border patrol agents has exploded, yet the number of Mexican residents caught crossing the border without documentation has dropped, from more than 1 million in 2005 to just 286,000 in 2011.

The Mexican born population residing in the United States is in decline.  A Pew report from  2011 found  “The Mexican born population grew 23% from 2000 to 2005, peaked in 2007 at 12.6 million and stabilized for two years before declining slightly in 2010. In 2011, the Mexican born population in the U.S. decreased still further, to 12.0 million.”

While deportations of undocumented Mexican nationals are on the rise, the number who say they will try to return to the US is falling: some 20% now say they will not try to return, compared to just 7% in 2005.

If immigration reform is enacted, the hot button issue driving Hispanic support for the Democrats will cool. The post-recession economy will have far fewer construction jobs—the industry that fueled the immigrant boom. In the coming years, we may well see an ideological diaspora among Hispanic voters. We forget, in the Permanent Present Tense, Mr. Bush’s significant gains among Hispanic voters in pre-recession 2004. There are potential rifts among Hispanic voters on social issues. Many young Hispanic women are staunchly Catholic and are conflicted on abortion; many young Hispanic men are attracted to political libertarianism or to the aggressive self-reliance touted by the National Rifle Association.

Thus far, there are no signs that Hispanic immigration will rescale its pre-recession heights. In 2011, for the first time in US history, more immigrants came to America’s shores from Asia than any other region. Asian immigrants will be less reliably liberal. Vietnamese immigrants in the 1970s tended to vote Republican, as did (and still do) the huge influx of Cuban immigrants who moved to south Florida after the rise of Castro.  Recent Asian immigrants include an increasing number from Islamic countries, fleeing the disorder and chaos of the Middle East. These religious newcomers trend more conservative, particularly on key social issues.

  3)      Democrats are counting on “reliable” red and blue states holding firm, but allegiances shift over time. Between 1952 and 1988 California backed the Republicans in every election save one (1964). Massive defense plants, fueled by the Cold War, dominated the Los Angeles economy and gave a conservative tint to the political landscape. In the early 1990s massive defense cuts, military base closings and a huge influx of Hispanic immigrants turned California blue and killed the GOP’s vote engine in Orange County.  Governor Michael Dukakis lost suburban Los Angeles’s Orange County in 1988 by a whopping 327,000 votes while Mr. Obama fell short by just 86,000 votes in 2012.

West Virginia, conversely, was once a bastion of blue, going for the Democrats in all but two elections from 1932 to 1996. In 2000, Al Gore took a principled environmental stand against mountain top coal mining.  King Coal glowered, turning the state red. We lost in 2000…and 2004…and 2008…and 2012.

So, do progressives have a demographic lock? Probably not. We need to stay electorally diligent, and we need to ignore the overwrought hype of a billion bloggers who think we can “just wait” until we have huge majorities in Congress and a decades-long hold of the White House to pass major legislation.

The Permanent Present Tense is dangerous. We have forgotten that Karl Rove’s claims of an electoral lock after the 2004 election were taken very seriously. We’ve forgotten how hopeless the rise of the edge city suburbs looked for our team. Mr. Rove was the political genius of the century in 2004; just eight short years later he is a laughingstock.

Hubris will get us nowhere. Demographic changes can be fast and harsh; it’s likely that divided government is here to stay for a while. We need to start lobbying harder NOW, while we still control the White House, moving the ball every inch toward the goal line that we can  rather than waiting for the “sure bet” touchdown pass we’ll get in 8 years when we will “inevitably” control all the levers of power. We need to pay attention to the recent success of the NRA. Could guns be the next wedge issue that kills us at the ballot box in 2016? Don’t count it out. Finally, we need to steadfastly continue to build broad based electoral coalitions, and we need to take nothing for granted. Ignore the voices proclaiming the dawn of a golden age; that day may never dawn. 

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  1. 4) Independents. Neither party can claim them. And that alone is enough to guarantee instability in any alignment. If part time jobs with no benefits is the new 'middle' class then it is safe to assume that independents will a) continue to be angry and b) determine many races.

  2. "King Coal glowered"

    The thing that truly trumps demographics is corporate money. Whoever spends the most money in a congressional primary wins about 97% of the time. Most of that money comes in big chunks from millionaires, CEOs, and well funded lobbyists. Ergo, any candidate with opinions that oppose the interests of the big boys won't make it to the general election. Even our "liberal Democrats" are rarely liberal.

    Demographics are wonderful, but ultimately the heavily financed "Manufacture of Consent" will rule.