Story Within the Story: History Versus Demographics

If you are just beginning to tune into the discussion of what might happen to you and your country on November 8, 2016, a good a starting-point as any is a brief joint column from Charlie Cook (the dean of U.S. election analysts) and David Wasserman (the Cook Political Report’s much-esteemed specialist on House races) at National Journal. They note contrasting themes we will hear over and over as the cycle matures. One is historical:

Looking at the race through a historical lens, the odds would seem stacked against Hillary Clinton (assuming that she is the Democratic nominee). In the post-World War II era, only six times has one party held the presidency for two consecutive terms, and only once has that party kept the White House for a third—a pattern that reflects what I call the “time for a change” voter dynamic. In fact, the last Democratic president directly elected to succeed another was James Buchanan, in 1856; he followed Franklin Pierce.

This conclusion defines away Harry Truman’s 1948 victory and denies Al Gore even an asterisk for winning the popular vote in 2000, and also ignores the fact that some of the closer presidential contests in history (not only 2000, but 1960 and 1976) narrowly avoided making a hash of this whole hypothesis. But we’ll hear a lot about it nonetheless. Meanwhile, there’s a contrary demographic argument:

If the electorate evolves in sync with the Census Bureau’s estimates of the adult citizen population (admittedly, a big if), the white share of the electorate would drop from 72 percent in 2012 to 70 percent in 2016; the African-American share would remain stable at 13 percent; the Latino portion would grow from 10 percent to 11 percent; and the Asian/other segment would increase from 5 percent to 6 percent. If the 2012 election had been held with that breakdown (keeping all other variables stable), President Obama would have won by 5.4 percentage points rather than by his actual 3.85-point margin.

In addition, the group with which the GOP does best—whites without college degrees—is the only one poised to shrink in 2016. President Obama won just 36 percent of these voters in 2012, while 42 percent of white voters with college degrees pulled the lever for him. But if the electorate changes in line with census estimates, the slice of college-educated whites will grow by 1 point, to 37 percent of all voters, while the portion of whites without degrees will shrink 3 points, to just 33 percent of the total. In other words, the GOP doesn’t just have a growing problem with nonwhites; it has a shrinkage problem as well, as conservative white seniors are supplanted by college-educated millennials with different cultural attitudes.

There will be pushback against these numbers, too. Cook/Wasserman note that the concentration of Hispanic voters in non-competitive states limits the crucial nature of that demographic. And you can expect Hillary Clinton’s detractors to predict she will fail to achieve the kind of turnout or preference percentages Obama generated in 2008 and 2012 among young and minority voters and that she won’t improve on 2008-2012 Democratic percentages among older white voters, either. Add in the historical argument and you get “Hillary is doomed” prophecies instantly, and among progressives, at least, panicky arguments that Democrats need some sort of unconventional candidate or strategy to mobilize some “hidden majority” from the ranks of non-voters or suddenly galvanized voters who suddenly get in touch with their inner lefty.

So there you have it. If you’re playing the game at home, you can take note of how often “debates” over the trajectory of the presidential election fall into this two basic categories, and you may be amazed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.