At this moment in American politics, we can count on a few things in presidential elections: The Northeast will vote for the Democrat. The Southeast will vote for the Republican. Both parties will fight for the Midwest and the Southwest. Democrats will be able to count on the West Coast. This geographic breakdown has been in place for more than a decade, but it’s a relatively new configuration in presidential politics.
As recently as 1976, the electoral map was different. In that year, the Republican candidate, Gerald Ford, won California, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Jersey, Michigan, and Rhode Island, while the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, won the industrial Midwest and every state of the former Confederacy aside from Virginia.
The Democratic strongholds in 1976 were part of a venerable coalition with strong historical roots. The Democrats had been the party of the South since before the Civil War, and with the addition of support from African Americans and the Northeast, Democrats had a powerful base for presidential politics. But the beleaguered economy of the
late 1970s and racial resentment over social programs—perceived as operating for the benefit of “undeserving” blacks—led to the breakup of the New Deal coalition, paving the way for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Which is to say that the electoral map changes with each generation, and at this moment, another new majority coalition is emerging.
In 2008, a collection of minorities, women, and young people—along with a substantial portion of college-educated whites—made Barack Obama the first African American president in U.S. history. The Reagan coalition no longer commanded a majority of voters. In 2012, Obama’s coalition held strong, giving him a majority of the popular vote and a decisive Electoral College victory.
Even by the standard of 2008, Obama’s 2012 coalition was a large and diverse group of voters. African Americans were 13 percent of the electorate (he won 93 percent of them), Asian Americans were 3 percent of the electorate (he won 73 percent of them), women were 53 percent of the electorate (he won 55 percent of them), and Latinos—long considered the “sleeping giant” of American politics—were 10 percent of the electorate. They went for Obama, 71 percent to 27 percent.
It was Obama’s margin among blacks that brought him consecutive victories in Virginia and Ohio—two states that have for the past 30 years leaned Republican. His margin among women moved Iowa and New Hampshire from toss-ups to solid wins. His standing with Latinos pushed Nevada, Colorado, and Florida into his column.
It’s not hard to understand why these groups give overwhelming support to Democratic candidates. In addition to opposing restrictive immigration laws, Latinos, for instance, lean left on health care—they give high marks to the Affordable Care Act—and the economy. African Americans not only hold liberal views on economic issues but also shun a Republican Party that has regularly exploited racial prejudice to win elections.
The Republican Party’s national strength, by contrast, rests on its near-supermajority standing among white voters in states that are mostly white—the South particularly. But immigration from Latin America and African American outmigration from Northern states has gradually turned many Southern states into battlegrounds. North Carolina, for example, has gone from a Republican redoubt to a swing state in eight years because it has become a destination for both Latino immigrants and college--educated workers from the Northeast.
These population movements are driven by the ebb and flow of different regions’ economic prospects. Latino immigrants are flocking to Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina because they are agricultural centers with high demand for low-wage labor. Educated workers are moving to Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado because these are inexpensive states with favorable climates, strong research institutions, and the growth of culturally rich cities such as Charlotte. African Americans are moving back to the South—after several generations in the nation’s urban centers—in search of jobs and less expensive housing.
These voters are younger than the bulk of the electorate, which means they’re more liberal than most other voters. According to a recent analysis from the Pew Research Center, voters ages 18 to 29 hold more progressive social and economic views and are more likely to identify as Democrats than is any other age cohort.
The two regions most affected by these changes are the Southeast and the Southwest. In Virginia, the “Hispanic or Latino” share of the population grew from 4.1 percent in 2000 to 7.9 percent in 2010, an increase of 91.7 percent. In North Carolina, the Latino population doubled: In both states, Latinos are now nearly 9 percent of all residents. Florida saw its Latino population grow by half—to 22.5 percent of all residents—and although the number of Latinos in archconservative South Carolina is still small (5.3 percent), it grew by nearly 150 percent.Growth was just as dramatic in the Southwest. New Mexico’s Latino population grew by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010, Colorado’s by just over 40 percent, Arizona’s by nearly half, and Nevada’s by 81.9 percent.
The Latino surge comes on top of the rapid growth of African American and Asian American communities in both regions. Georgia, in particular, saw a 25 percent increase in its black population, to almost one-third of all its residents, and a more than 80 percent increase in the size of its Asian community.
Over the next 20 years, these trends will only accelerate. By 2025, according to a recent Census Bureau report, more than 75 million Americans—nearly one-fifth of the population—will be of Latino descent. The black community will grow just enough so that it will continue to constitute 12 percent of the population, while the Asian American community will grow to more than 21 million people, or 7 percent of the population. As these changes will be concentrated in the Southeast and Southwest, where Democrats have already made major inroads in traditionally Republican terrain, the electoral map will undergo a huge transformation.
Virginia and North Carolina, for instance, will become reliably blue states. Already, they fall into the “purple” column, with Virginia leaning slightly toward Democrats and North Carolina leaning slightly toward Republicans. Obama won the former by a modest margin in 2008 and 2012; he narrowly won the latter in 2008 and narrowly lost it four years later. But if the nonwhite share of the population continues to grow in both states, in a decade—or a little more—they will consistently lean Democratic.
A similar shift is under way in Georgia. Right now, the state is solidly Republican; the GOP has carried it in seven of the past ten presidential elections. With 15 electoral votes, Georgia is now a must-have for Republicans. But its demographic changes have brought the Democrats steadily closer to striking distance. John Kerry’s 41.3 percent of the vote in 2004 became Barack Obama’s 46.9 percent in 2008 and 45.5 percent in 2012. It’s not at all hard to imagine a future where Georgia becomes like Pennsylvania or Michigan today—a state where Democrats are always in the game and are frequently victorious.
There’s a considerable irony to all of this: The last time Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida were dominated by Democrats, the party was militantly segregationist. They have now gravitated back toward the Democrats precisely because the party has become racially diverse. It’s even more ironic that the South is trending Democratic under Obama, who—unlike Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton—is the first non-Southern Democratic president since Harry Truman.
A world where Democrats make inroads into the South is one where Republicans have a hard time winning presidential elections. Without Virginia or North Carolina, George W. Bush would have lost to Al Gore before he ever had a chance to face John Kerry. Without Georgia, John McCain’s electoral vote total in 2008 would have been a scant 158. And it could still get worse for the GOP.
Texas is the linchpin of the Republican electoral coalition. To most Americans, it represents conservatism, the base from which the GOP has made many of its gains over the past 30 years. The Republicans’ last president, their leading strategist (Karl Rove), many of their biggest financial backers, and their model for small, pro-business government all come from Texas. But the state is subject to the same demographic and political trends as both the Southeast and the Southwest. Smart Republicans understand that these trends endanger the entire conservative political project: “In not too many years, Texas could switch from being all Republican to all Democrat,” newly elected Texas Senator—and rising Republican star—Ted Cruz told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. “If that happens, no Republican will ever again win the White House. … If Texas turns bright blue, the Electoral College math is simple. We won’t be talking about Ohio, we won’t be talking about Florida or Virginia, because it won’t matter.”
Texas Republicans have made substantial attempts to gain Latino votes. GOP groups like Hispanic Republicans of Texas—led by George P. Bush, son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush—have helped elect Latino Republicans to Congress, the Texas Supreme Court, and the state’s house of representatives. Even so, Latinos in the state have only grown more Democratic in recent years. In 2004, George W. Bush won nearly half—49 percent—of Texas Latinos. Just four years later, however, Obama won 63 percent of them. No exit polls were conducted in Texas this year, but given his performance nationwide, it’s likely that Obama improved on his 2008 totals. Today, the Democratic inclinations of Latinos are still outweighed at the polls by the overwhelming Republican tilt of white Texans. But eventually, if Texas follows the trajectory of the rest of the country, it could become a battleground state.
Arizona has already moved further down this path. It’s a state where the Latino population is large (29.6 percent of all Arizonans, according to the 2010 census), Democratic, and growing—it’s up more than 46 percent from the previous decade. The state has gone Republican in every presidential election since 1960 but for a blip in 1996 when Bill Clinton came out ahead of Bob Dole and Ross Perot. Its expanding Latino electorate, however, makes Arizona less of a sure thing for the GOP in future presidential contests. Romney carried the state by a nine-point margin this year, and some election analysts believe that Obama would have won the state in 2008 if John McCain hadn’t been the Republican nominee.
This may all sound apocalyptic for Republican prospects, but white voters will remain a majority for the next few decades—the country isn’t projected to become “majority-minority” until 2050—and they’re likely to stay loyal to the GOP. In fact, since 1992, the Republican Party’s share of the white vote has steadily risen. Mitt Romney won nearly 60 percent support from white voters, the most of any Republican since the Reagan landslide of 1984. If 2012 had been a less favorable year for Democrats—which is not a stretch, given the poor economy—Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would have been in play as a result of the continuing white flight to Republican ranks.
Indeed, looking forward 20 years, the electoral map might end up reversing itself. In places where population growth has slowed—the Midwest and the Rust Belt—Republicans might make gains. For starters, this region is disproportionately white—Ohio, for example, is 81 percent white, compared to 63.4 percent for the country writ large. The same is true of Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, which range from 79 percent white to nearly 90 percent white. These are also states with small foreign-born populations—less than 5 percent for Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin. They’re not major sites of immigration, Latino or otherwise.
If these states had voters who were younger than average, they would still be a hard reach for Republicans: Young people, regardless of race or ethnicity, are more liberal than their elders. But these are also among the oldest states in the country, which young people steadily abandon for states with more vibrant economies or warmer climates. Forty-three percent of Pennsylvanians, 42 percent of Iowans, and 41 percent of Wisconsinites, for example, are 45 or older. The figure for the entire United States is just 39 percent.
Put these trends together, and you’re left with states that fit the Republican profile—older and whiter. An electoral map where Virginia and Georgia are blue might also be one where Ohio and Pennsylvania are out of reach for Democrats. But it’s one where the Democratic Party holds an advantage in the Electoral College—with Georgia, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina in their column, Democrats could lose every Rust Belt state and still win the presidency. Texas would just be a bonus.
This is what realignments look like. Waves of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe eclipsed the Anglo-Protestant Republican majority of the late 19th century. The New Deal coalition—which lasted almost 50 years—crashed on the shores of civil rights and feminism, to yield the Reagan Revolution.
Eventually, something will tear this new electoral configuration apart, too, and give Republicans a shot at establishing dominance again. Indeed, when you consider that political parties above all want to win, odds are good that Republicans will learn how to tailor their message and ideas not only to their largely white base but also to the voters they’ll need to convince—nonwhites and immigrants. Integration and assimilation among immigrants may eventually create a group of voters who identify more with the white population and are more amenable to conservative ideas on the size and scope of government: essentially, the path followed by Irish and Italian Americans over the course of several generations.
For now, however, Democrats have assembled a coalition that can consistently prevail in presidential elections, and as a result, they are reshaping the political map. Republicans may still win under the right circumstances, but for the foreseeable future, they will have to fight against a demographic tide.