The GOP's 2016 Demographic Challenge Is Even Worse Than You Thought

There are reasons to be at least a little skeptical of the demography-is-destiny argument about presidential politics, which says that given the increasing minority population, it will be all but impossible for Republicans to win the White House any time soon. Most importantly, the argument rests on Republicans' continued eagerness to alienate minorities, particularly Latinos, which is quite likely but by no means certain. But more broadly, if there's anything one can predict with confidence about politics, it's that things change. You never know what might happen in the next election, which is why it's so interesting. There could be another economic collapse, or another war, or some other series of events that dramatically alters the landscape.

But there's an interesting study released today by the Center for American Progress' Patrick Oakford (h/t Aaron Blake) that runs through some scenarios for 2016 that any Republican ought to find utterly terrifying. The question Oakford asked was, given the size of the minority electorate, what are Republicans going to have to do win the electoral college? He ran through a few scenarios, using exit poll data from the 2012 and 2004 election, the latter because the Republican candidate not only won that year but did quite well among minority voters. And what he found was that even if the 2016 GOP candidate could duplicate George W. Bush's numbers, including 44 percent support among Latinos (an exit poll number that has long been in dispute, but still) and his strong support from white voters, the Democrat would still win. Here are some details:

Demographic changes are occurring at such rapid rates that, in some states, regaining 2004 levels of support simply will not be enough for the Republican presidential candidate to win them back in 2016. In other words, as voters of color become a larger share of the electorate, winning a state in 2016 will necessitate a higher level of support among voters of color than in past elections. In Ohio, for example, the GOP took the state in 2004 with slightly more than a 2 percent margin of victory. President George W. Bush obtained noticeable support among voters of color: 16 percent of African Americans in Ohio voted for him. This level of support, however, deteriorated during the next few elections. By 2012, Gov. Romney took only 6 percent of votes cast by African Americans. Between 2004 and 2016, the electorate of Ohio will have changed. When President Bush won Ohio in 2004, voters of color collectively comprised less than 14 percent of the state's electorate. By 2016, African Americans will constitute more than 12 percent of the electorate, and people of color collectively will account for 17 percent of the state's electorate. In light of these changes, CAP's analysis finds that in 2016, if—across racial and ethnic groups—voters cast ballots as they did in 2004, the Democratic candidate would win by a margin of 3.6 percentage points. (see Figure 8)

In 2004, non-Hispanic white voters' support for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was higher than their support for President Obama in 2012, meaning that, under the second simulation, Democrats would pick up more support among white voters than they did in 2012. But even if the Republican candidate in 2016 maintains the high support that Gov. Romney received among white voters, while at the same time regaining 2004 levels of support among voters of color, the GOP would still lose Ohio.

In other words, in a state like Ohio, you can cobble together the best possible scenario for the GOP — Bush's good showing among minorities from 2004, plus Romney's strong support among whites from 2012 — and given the demographic makeup of the 2016 electorate, the Republican nominee would still lose.

To repeat, nothing is certain. Maybe there's a Republican politician out there who could assemble an entirely new demographic coalition, holding on to whites while dramatically increasing support among minorities. Or maybe national conditions will change so radically that demographic factors won't matter. Or maybe we'll learn just before the election that Hillary Clinton not only killed Vince Foster with her bare hands, she's also secretly the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel and once had a torrid affair with Ayman al-Zawahiri. But barring some spectacularly unlikely turn of events, Republicans have one heck of a mountain to climb in order to win back the White House.