The changing electorate makes a win hard for Donald Trump
Pollsters describe them as conservative, God-fearing white men and women, likely living in the suburbs or the countryside, who long for an image of America long past. Anxious about surging immigration, whiplash-speed cultural changes and an unrecognizable U.S. economy, they chose Donald Trump, celebrity billionaire, as their presidential candidate.
The shorthand, however, for that coalition – nostalgia voter – is equal parts apt and ironic: White conservatives' time as a political powerhouse, analysts say, is definitely in the past.
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They've been displaced by a new electoral juggernaut whose members typically live in the city, likely have black or brown skin and probably speak Spanish. The "rising American Electorate," as one think tank calls it, includes young people and single white women. Its members tend to skip church on Sunday, don't mind gay marriage and perhaps voted for President Barack Obama, the nation's first black commander-in-chief, at least once.
"For the first time in the history of this country, the majority of people who can vote among traditionally underrepresented demographics, will be the majority of people who do vote," says Page Gardner, founder and president of the Voter Participation Center, a nonpartisan think tank that studies the national electorate. "They will become, literally, the new American majority."
That electorate, experts say, could flex the same kind of ballot-box muscle that the nostalgia voters of today wielded for roughly 27 years, when right-leaning Christian voters swept President Ronald Reagan into the Oval Office. The Gipper's election, in turn, ushered in a conservative "revolution" that broke the Democrats' hammerlock on Congress, purged moderates from the GOP ranks and shifted the Supreme Court majority, anchoring it solidly on the right.
The emergence of minority, millennial and women voters as a powerful coalition, more likely to choose a Democrat than a Republican for president, signals big trouble for the GOP, which lost to Obama twice and likely will lose to Hillary Clinton, his hand-picked successor. Unless the Party of Lincoln breaks its reliance on the rapidly diminishing white Christian vote – which elected President George W. Bush twice but went zero-for-two against Obama, whom they abhorred – a Republican won't occupy the Oval Office for the foreseeable future.
"Just two election cycles ago in 2008, 54 percent of Americans identified as white and Christian, but today that number has dipped to 43 percent," says Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, a nonpartisan public-opinion research, in an email interview.
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"Whites are still a majority at the ballot box due to higher turnout rates (we're projecting about 55 percent of 2016 voters to be white and Christian)," says Jones. But "that is down from 61 percent in 2008 and 63 percent in 2004, the last time a Republican won the White House."
Yet for Democrats, there's a dark cloud around that silver lining: The multicultural millennial coalition is a lot more casual about voting than their older white peers, and it tends to disengage from politics between presidential elections. Moreover, as an urban coalition with different interests than white voters in the countryside, harnessing their political clout will probably calcify the red-state, blue-state divide.
That means a higher likelihood the nation will have long-term divided government in Washington, experts say, and more of the legislative gridlock that goes along with it. And the agitated white voters aren't likely to go away.
"Even if Trump loses, we will still have to deal with a large segment of the population that is grappling with these changes and its own displacement as the dominant cultural force in the country," says Jones, author of "The End of White Christian America."
Though it's described as a "new" majority, Jones and others say the demographic changes that have shifted political power to millennials, single women and minorities have been under way for a decade, if not longer – including an increase in immigration, a decrease in church attendance and a substantial uptick in participation when it comes to presidential races.
"The white vote has been declining systematically, in election after election," says Gardner. "I think that will continue to happen, in presidential elections for sure."
While demographers calculate that African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans will become a majority of the U.S. population by 2043, political change is coming more rapidly as members of that demographic become old enough to vote.
"While each state's demographics are changing at different paces and are being driven by different racial or ethnic groups, one trend is unmistakable: Non-Hispanic white voters are a shrinking share of the electorate," according to "The Changing Face of the American Electorate," a report published by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
Voters of color "will represent the majority of the net increase in eligible voters between 2012 and 2016," according to the report. "In Pennsylvania, for example, people of color made up 17 percent of the electorate in 2012 and will rise to 19.2 percent by 2016.The growth of this electorate represents 87 percent of the net increase in eligible voters in the state and therefore may prove to be influential" in presidential races over the long term.
Since 2012, however, the rising American Electorate's population has spiked by 14 percent, according to the Voter Participation Center. Leading the increase: Hispanics, whose ranks of eligible voters increased by 17.4 percent (although the Asian-American eligible-voter population had a larger percentage increase – 27.3 percent – the Latino population is nearly three times larger, and it added twice as many people).
Other demographic groups in the new electorate have had significant increases since Obama was sworn in for his second term, including women, whose ranks jumped by nearly 7 percent, African-Americans (a 7.7 percent increase) and millennials (up 3.6 percent).
The GOP, meanwhile, has always relied more on white Christian voters than the Democrats, Jones says, but that gap has been widening more rapidly – and, demographic shifts aside, the GOP hasn't made much of an effort to change, despite the strong recommendations in its own, post-2012 election "autopsy."
"In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton's winning coalition was 62 percent white and Christian, but Barack Obama's 2012 winning coalition was only 37 percent white and Christian," says Jones. "In 1992, George H.W. Bush's coalition was 85 percent white and Christian, and Mitt Romney's 2012 coalition looked roughly the same at 80 percent white and Christian. So today, Republicans are currently twice as likely as Democrats to rely on white Christian voters" even though it's cost them the White House.
That hasn't changed in 2016: Trump is still depending on older white voters, who support him at upwards of 60 percent, while his polling among Hispanics is languishing at around 14 percent, a new low for Republican presidential candidates. His support among women hasn't broken 40 percent, while his poll numbers among African-Americans has flatlined in the low single digits.
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"In many ways, the Obama coalition was a harbinger of what to expect in future presidential elections as the very young Latino/a/x population matures into eligible voters," says Ciarra C. Torres-Spelliscy, who teaches elections law at Stetson University's College of Law in Deland, Florida.
That's good news for Democrats at the presidential level, but it might be too early to celebrate for congressional elections, Torres-Spelliscy says: "The same impact may not be felt in House races for some time because Congressional districts are notoriously gerrymandered by partisans for their own political advantage."
This is even more true because the new, more diverse coalition is consistently inconsistent: It turns out in presidential cycles, but skips voting in off-year and local elections, allowing more-engaged nostalgia voters to take control. That was particularly true in the 2010 midterm elections, when the young, multicultural Obama coalition stayed home, the GOP crushed the Democrats in state and congressional elections, then put the House on lockdown by redrawing legislative districts to protect Republican incumbents.
"In 2014, 42 percent of voting-eligible members of the RAE – over 52 million people – weren't registered," according to the Voter Participation Center. "In presidential election years, for every one voter in the RAE who was registered and didn't vote, there were four who were unregistered and therefore couldn't vote," including 51 percent of millennials, 49 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of unmarried women.
When asked why they didn't vote, "the number-1 reason they gave was that they don't have enough information about the candidates or about the policy debates on the issues they care about," according to the Voter Participation Center report. "There's also a lack of information about voting itself – which is all the more troubling because the ways Americans register and vote have changed dramatically" including voting by mail, online and early voting, as well as laws requiring government identification in order to cast a ballot.
Ultimately, Jones and others say, both Republicans and Democrats must adapt to the rising new electorate if they want to win elections – but also must allay the where-has-my-country-gone fears of nostalgia voters if they want to govern.
"Faced with rapidly changing demographics and also cultural norms, many conservative white Christians do see this election as a kind of 'last stand' to defend a more homogeneous vision of America, where white Christian values held sway," Jones says.
The reality TV star's appeal to restore American greatness "has tapped that sense of loss and anxiety," Jones says. Societal changes not on the horizon a decade ago, like gay marriage, the "gig economy" and minorities' demands for inclusion, he adds, "have been very recent and very fast, accelerating especially in the last decade. It's not unusual for the first responses to this kind of loss to be anger and denial, which is much of what we've seen in this election cycle."
Gardner agrees, noting whites "will still be a substantial portion of the electorate. They will have a big footprint. It's just reducing." She says that means "some of the issues, particularly around the economic issues that have been raised – those issues are going to have to be addressed, no matter who's president."
But those are issues for after Inauguration Day in January, Gardner says. Right now, she says, "everybody just wants the election to be over."
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