Demographics and the 2012 Election

“The white establishment is no longer the majority…the demographics are changing.  It’s not a traditional America anymore.”

“record-breaking turnout numbers from urban areas…did win the election for him.”

These quotations, or something very close to them, could have come from just about any media source the week or so following the election.  Left-leaning journalists, officially neutral and otherwise, gleefully looked forward to a future in which old, angry white men died off, and their successors found themselves a minority in a country transformed along the lines of the progressive project.

The quotations came from Bill O’Reilly and Paul Ryan, however, and so have been treated as borderline racist.  Because O’Reilly and Ryan are pro-Romney, they are seen as blaming his loss on a rising brown menace, rather than crediting Obama’s win to a better and more diverse America, or neutrally describing Obama’s win as illustrating the GOP’s demographic doom.


The advice that the Republicans stop being the Party of old white people seems to assume some deliberate strategy on the part of Republicans to insure that their fate is tied to those 55 and older.  Silly Republicans!  Don’t they know their constituents are good for nothing except sitting around waiting to die so the more enlightened can take over?

I have seen people say that with the demographics of 1992, the Republicans would have won the 2012 election.  Yet it isn’t as if the Republicans pursued a 20 year strategy of seeking to dominate the white vote to make up for a shortfall among minorities to which they’d resigned themselves.  The GOP recognized back in the days of Bush/Rove that it would have a greater need for minority votes than had been the case in the past.  Bush got an unusually large share of the Hispanic vote in 2000, as I recall.  He then started shedding both white and Hispanic swing voters late in his term.*  You didn’t need demographics to explain the downturn in GOP fortunes in 2006 and ’08. By 2012, the GOP has become extremely successful with the white vote, especially the old white vote, while Democrats dominate among minorities.

One possible explanation is that white people on average want different policies than black and hispanic people do; Republicans have run up the score with white people by favoring policies white people favor and opposing those that black and hispanic people favor.

For simplified example, suppose the median white voter favors government spending x %GDP, while the median black/hispanic voter favors government spending x+5% GDP.  Democrats promise x+5%.  Republicans can offer x% and get half the white vote, plus a few white people who are closer to x than x+5.  The Democrats will win over half the hispanic vote.  Now suppose Republicans decide they want more votes.  If they decide to try to get more hispanic votes, what should they do?  Offer more than x, obviously.  If they want more white votes, what should they do?  Again, the solution is to offer more than x.

So that’s a difficulty in turning to policy disagreement as an explanation for recent white/hispanic polarization (Dems’ share of the black vote holds pretty steady); in cases where there’s middle ground, the political system will deliver it.  Genuine polarization would require that almost every hispanic favored bigger government than almost every white person, or that almost every hispanic was adamantly pro-choice and almost every white person was adamantly pro-life, or something similar along these lines.


Another explanation is cultural polarization.  This is more difficult to analyze without a bias.  For instance, most progressives considering the question feel there is a need for a special reason explaining why old white people vote Republican, whereas voting Democratic is natural.  They tend to explain white people’s Republican votes in terms of resentment of the rise of minorities- white people fear they are losing their country, the mantra goes.

If someone similarly argued that black and hispanic voters voted for racial reasons, this would be treated as racist.  The very questions that are permitted or expected (“why do whites vote Republican” versus “why do blacks/hispanics vote Democratic” or “why do men vote Republican” versus “why do women vote Democratic”) bias the analysis.

Yet we don’t need to turn to insulting explanations, as progressives do for white voting patterns, in order to conclude that racial identity plays a part in Democrats getting 75% of the hispanic vote and 100% of the black vote.  These groups may vote the way they do because they think many Americans are hostile to them, and that Republicans represent these voters.

For instance, whites and Hispanics aren’t polarized around immigration policy (some whites are for reform, while many Hispanics don’t see the issue as a top concern.)  However, a minority of whites care intensely about opposing immigration, and used their power with the GOP to prevent Congress from enacting Bush’s reform proposals.  As a result of the rhetoric of that debate, Hispanics may have come to see the GOP as representing hostility to them, rather than merely failing to advance a policy they liked.  The Arizona immigration law and other similar laws, the increasing prominence of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Minutemen, and 2012 GOP primary rhetoric all likely exacerbated the problem- border control is one thing, actively treating Hispanics as the enemy is quite another.


Similarly, of course, progressives’ often-expressed contempt for “angry old white men” may turn some people toward the GOP.  Whereas anti-black or anti-hispanic rhetoric is usually aimed at these entire groups, ridicule of “angry old white men” is often expressed by angry old white men, and is meant to refer only to a certain kind of white person.  Those who feel they are the target of these insults are obviously likely to vote against the Party that is identified with people who are waiting for them to die and get out of the way of Progress.

In a similar way, Bush-era conservative Republican rhetoric was aimed against effete, intellectual elitists.  For people with a college degree, opposing Bush and supporting Democrats becomes a way of expressing identity as a thoughtful, open, nuanced person.  Of course, political rhetoric and pre-existing cultural divides are mutually reinforcing; politics probably doesn’t create these divisions out of nowhere.


We don’t know how the country will polarize itself 20 or 50 years from now; I tend to assume Parties and factions will adjust to one another such that it will be about 50-50, with incumbents having a slight advantage in their ability to shape events, just as was the case in 2012 and 2004.  The relavent question is who the easiest marginal voter to get is in 2014 and 2016, and how to get him or her.

But notice that culturally polarized elections like 2000, 2004 and 2012 come only when no substantive differences are there to motivate people to vote.  By 2006, Iraq an obvious disaster, no longer ambiguous enough to serve as a cultural Rorschak test as it did in 2004.  In 2008, the economy was bad enough that people were obviously ready to slaughter the incumbent Party.  In 2010, voters rejected Pelosi-Obama’s health care agenda, worried about debt, opposed the auto and bank bailouts, wanted to punish the incumbent Party for the failure of its deficit-increasing stimulus to improve the economy, and acted accordingly.

In 2012, Romney did not really raise the issue of ObamaCare, and contrary to Republican fears, and Clinton’s valiant efforts at the DNC, Democrats left the issue of the Ryan budget largely alone, and were not able to use the issue to take back the House.  The election mostly wasn’t fought over the issues (social security, Medicare, medicaid, health care, budgets, taxes, including possible carbon taxes) that will actually decide our policy future.

Romney sought to win on the grounds that the economy was weak, mostly a contentless argument.  The really important short-term economic policy actions (auto and bank bailouts, stimulus) were all done, for better or worse.  The only one that was still an issue, the auto bailout, was one where Romney was now forced to play defense, as public opinion was against it by a smaller margin than in the past, and all the intensity was on Obama’s side.

Obama’s winning strategy was to watch as slight improvement mitigated the economy as a problem for him, argue that Romney would be even worse because he’d fired people at Bain Capital, and use the auto issue to win back the Midwest and form the centerpiece of a broader “it’s been a tough ride but ‘Merica doesn’t quit” narrative, and shape a culture war he could win to take attention off the economy.

I wouldn’t draw too many sweeping conclusions about the course of history from the 2012 election.


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