The recent midterm election could be read as the belly-flop conclusion of the Obama era: What was thought to be a transformative period in American politics—a brief spark of minority- and youth-driven enthusiasm that created the promise of a post-racial America—did not, it appears, carry through to 2014.
But that interpretation would not be entirely correct. The energy that propelled Obama to the presidency lingers in at least one important respect: An increasingly muscular minority political base is here to stay. And that’s just the beginning.
For someone like me who has dedicated to my life to studying changing demographics, there’s no bigger event than the once-a-decade census. And it’s clear that the biggest story to come out of the 2010 census actually happened the following year: In 2011, more minority babies were born in the United States than white babies. Since 2000, the nation’s population of young whites has been on the decline. All of the growth in the nation’s under-18 population has been attributable to new minorities—namely Hispanics, Asians and multiracial Americans. Just as the Baby Boom upended the second half of the 20th century, the ascendancy of racial minorities will be the signature demographic trend of the 21st. And the coming explosion will have radical implications for American politics.
Demagogues of the past once fanned fears of a “minority white” nation, but it’s clear that politicians entering the 2016 landscape will have to contend with—and celebrate—an electorate that looks more different than it looks the same. It’s a shift that will upend many of the politics and alliances we’ve come to expect.
So just how different will America look in the years to come? And who will be voting in 2016, 2018, and 2020?
As the white population continues to age, racial minorities will pick up the slack. Already, 10 states have “minority white” child populations, including reliably red states like Texas and Arizona.
By 2027, minorities will out-number whites nationally among those under age 30; ditto by 2033 for those under age 40. As the older population continues to stay much whiter than the millennial generation and its successors, current political divisions between older, whiter generations and younger, more diverse ones—something I call the cultural generation gap—will linger. In one example of this divide, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that seven in 10 millennial minorities favored a larger government with more services over a smaller government with fewer. The same was true of only four in 10 white baby boomers.
The spread of racial minorities—both old and new groups—to virtually all parts of the country will also play a key role in this century’s demographic transformation and its political impact. New minorities, led by Hispanics, are dispersing inward from coastal urban centers like Los Angeles and New York and impacting parts of the interior that have been largely white (and Republican-leaning) like Nevada or white and black (with racially disparate politics) like Georgia.
WILL THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA LOOK MORE LIKE MEXICO, OR WILL THE UNDERLYING CULTURAL NORMS AND VALUES INCULCATE THIS POPULATION IRRESPECTIVE OF RACIAL PREDISPOSITION?Sun Belt states in the South and interior West, for instance, contain many of the 145 rapidly growing new Hispanic destinations that I have identified—leading to a possible shift in their politics.
Georgia is a case in point. Between the 2004 and 2014 elections, more than four-fifths of the state’s new eligible voters were minorities, with blacks alone accounting for one-half of the gain. This shift had much to do with Democratic senatorial candidate Michelle Nunn’s competitive showing in this year’s strong Republican wave election, and bodes well for making Georgia a player in future presidential elections.
While whites have long stuck primarily to the suburbs, more than half of all Asians, Hispanics and blacks now live among the crabgrass and cul-de-sacs born out of post-World War II white flight.
Of course, translating this minority-driven demographic change into political change involves some lag time. Only about half of Hispanics or Asians in the United States are eligible to vote, because they are either too young or are not citizens, and on top of that, minority voter turnout is lower than for the population as a whole.
But even with these handicaps, minority voters are already remaking the electoral map in many parts of the country particularly in the southeast and mountain west Sun Belt states like North Carolina and Nevada, where until very recently, Republicans held a virtual choke-hold on presidential elections.
It should not go unnoticed that the lion’s share of Obama’s Electoral College votes came from traditional Democratic states on the coasts and in the industrial Midwest. And in these states, too, minorities were largely responsible for his wins. In most of the Midwestern states Obama won, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, minority populations were still fairly small, but the strong turnout and Democratic vote of minorities bested the tepid Republican support from a far larger white population.
And there, in fact, lies the rub for Democrats in the short run. As the Baby-Boom cohort takes over the older senior population, it will still remain a substantial Republican force over the next several election cycles.
But in the longer run, demography seems inevitably tilted in favor of racial minorities, whose ranks are swelling throughout the country and who have the potential to disrupt the nation’s current political fault lines. And that’s not to say that Democrats will necessarily be the prime beneficent of this demographic shift, either, despite the conventional wisdom. In Texas, for instance, 22 percent of the population in the state’s deep-red, metropolitan suburbs are Hispanic—which could be why GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney took 36-37 percent of Hispanic vote in that state with 27 percent in other states. One of the most pressing questions for candidates and strategists on both sides in 2016 will be how to leverage this groundswell to their advantage. Because if they can’t adapt now, politicos might soon be looking at another challenge: How to keep the coming wave from relegating their party to the sidelines, no more than a relic of majority-white America.
William H. Frey is a demographer and senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and author of Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America.