After last year’s surprise election result, the Democratic Party in the United States is trying to figure out: what went wrong? And don’t let Donald Trump take all the limelight (hard I know), instead look beyond the presidential result at those down the ballot. As Lanae Erickson Hatalsky and Jim Kessler of the Third Way, a centrist think tank, explain in the Washington Post:
“…since the halcyon days of 2009, Democrats have lost one-fifth of their Senate seats, one-quarter of their House seats, nearly half of their governors and more than half of the state legislative bodies they once controlled. The Trump win was the final, not the first, indignity.”
Not only are the results bad (very bad) in themselves, but they come at a time where many pundits and political junkies were predicting that the United States’ demographic changes were on the Democrats side. Growing numbers of non-white voters, millennials and single women would, it was predicted, ensure long-term Democratic majorities at the state and national levels. But now the Democrats have record-low number of elected offices at the federal, state and local levels. So why did demographic change not result in Democratic victory? Hatalsky and Kessler give two reasons.
First, the demographic change is not dispersed across the country. Where your voters live is important in an Electoral College and wider place-based system. In order for millennial and Latino voters to provide better electoral support for the Democrats, they need to move to the rural South of the country, or settle across the Rust Belt. At the moment, going into the 2016 election, the 159 House districts deemed safely Democratic were already “majority-minority”, the average was 45 per cent white. The 186 safe Republican districts were 75 per cent white on average, while the 90 swing districts were 70 per cent white. For the upper house, the Senate is even harder for Democrats relying on a changing United States, there are 23 states that skew red, while only 13 skew blue (we have discussed this before as a key feature of the United States’ political landscape). What about this quite incredible statistic:
“…despite Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote victory, Donald Trump won about 2,600 counties while she won 489. That might have been enough to keep the electoral college tally close, but it’s also a recipe for losing pretty much everything down ballot.”
In short, if demographic change is centred in the big cities in the big states that already vote Democrat (the West Coast and New England) then the Democrats will not be able to rely on non-white voters to get across the line at the State or Federal level.
But there is another reason why demography is not necessarily the Democrats friend. And this is, I think, the more important point. Assuming that growing numbers of millennials, Latinos etc necessarily mean growing numbers of Democratic voters is reductionist, simplistic and presumes that voters are “static beings with unwavering ideologies and consistent voting behaviours”. People cannot be assumed to vote one way or the other simply because of their ethnicity, sex or age. In fact, as Hatalsky and Kessler rightly say, to think otherwise is insulting to the members of any of these groups. We saw an illustration of the danger of this perceived wisdom of a group’s voting pattern in Trump’s victory: he did better than Romney did with Hispanic voters! Hatalsky and Kessler again:
“44 percent of millennials call themselves independents and only 30 percent are liberals. Among Latinos, 37 percent are Independents and only 28 percent liberals. That means 7 in 10 within these rising American electorate groups consider themselves moderate or even conservative.”
So, contrary to a lot of the discourse around US elections, remember that voters are individuals and are not reducible to one or another of their physical attributes. While Latinos and younger voters might tend to support Democrats now, there is no guarantee that they will continue to do so, or that a significant minority of them support another party. All very elementary I would have thought, but good to keep in mind: be careful if someone says demography favours one party. After all, people also vote on policies and policies change!