The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Demographics 2012

Ruy Teixeira, among others, has determined the US electorate is undergoing a long term ethnicity shift favoring Democrats. While minority voting spiked with Obama’s 2008 campaign, Teixeira’s view is that these trends’ major impacts are still two or three election cycles distant:

“The tectonic plates of American politics are shifting … Minorities are Democrats’ strongest constituency, and their numbers are growing rapidly…”

“… the United States will be majority-minority nation by 2042. By 2050, the country will be 54 percent minority as Latinos double from 15 percent to 30 percent of the population, Asian Americans increase from 5 percent to 9 percent, and African Americans move from 14 to 15 percent …”

“… white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population by 2040, and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the Republican base, will be only about a third of that—a minority within a minority…”

I suspect Teixeira underestimates these ethnic shifts’ immediate impact. Expectations matter in politics, as in economics: many white Americans currently fear the prospect of sliding into minority status. Politicians trigger this fear easily.

Republicans pay attention to social science research about demographic impacts.

Stanford and UCLA poly-scientists Jackman and Vavreck study voters: in 2008, furor over bailouts and Bush led voters to favor any mainstream Democrat for president. But “Obamamania” was on shaky grounds from the beginning. Even in 2008, Jackman and Vavreck show that racial resentment cost Obama at least 3% of the popular vote, which presumably went to McCain. Without ethnic resentment, the vote would have been 56% to 43% (instead of 53% to 46%). Better than Reagan’s 1980 margin, a 13% margin gets described as a “landslide”, pundits calling it a mandate.

But in the real world, “Obamamania” lasted only a year, by which time most Americans blamed him for TARP (enacted under Bush) and the deficit (3/4 of which is caused by revenue downturn, Bush tax cuts, and wars). Pundits err if they claim Obama’s leftish ways were his undoing. When people misreport facts in a non-random way, it’s usually because self-interest or self-identity self-censors to confirm what they believe.

What kind of self-interest or identity are we talking about? Psychologists at Chicago and UCSD demonstrated that whites (even liberals) implicitly doubt Obama’s nationality, and Baylor researchers showed it’s easy to prime racial prejudice with religious references. The right-wing labeled Obama non-Christian and non-American: that’s how “Obamamania” bit the dust.

Pew’s recent polls find the GOP’s big gains “have occurred only among white voters.” Before Obama’s election, Republicans held a 2% white voter advantage; it’s 13% today. White women now give the GOP a 5% lead; they favored Democrats by 7% before 2008. Poor whites and young whites now favor Republicans.

Yet the same public agrees with Obama on issues: gays in the military, taxes for the wealthy, Medicare. It’s not any move “left” that’s caused their turn. Obama can’t calm white fears with policy; they’re deeper than that.

Long-term, this could make Teixeira’s conclusions even more robust, since current white resentment will probably drive minorities more Democrat. But, as the man said, in the long run we’re all dead. In the immediate future, long-term demographics keeps politics nasty.