The final Electoral College tally in 2012. President Barack Obama won re-election with 332 electoral votes to Republican Mitt Romney’s 206 votes. This is how to think about 2016: Which states will be in play? Which candidate can build the winning coalition? (National Archives graphic.)
Confused by the 2016 presidential campaign?
Mark Trahant / TRAHANTREPORTS
It’s easy to get confused by this year’s campaign for president. If you get information from watching television or from Internet rumblings, you might think Republicans are driving toward a massive victory. And why not? Donald Trump packs thousands of people into every one of his rallies and the television ratings for G.O.P. debates are ginormous. So this must be the Republican year, right?
The problem with that narrative is that it misses the demographic shift that’s been occurring in America.
Fact is any Republican candidate for president starts off in a deep hole. To win a candidate will have to erase a structural deficit. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s also growing more unlikely because of the tone coming from the 2016 campaign so far. Why the deep hole? When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today it’s about 63 percent white.
One demographic profile of voters by The National Journal shows how dramatically the country has changed since Reagan’s landslide. He won with the support 56 percent of white voters in 1980. “But in 2012, when nonwhite voters accounted for 28 percent of the electorate, Mitt Romney took 59 percent of white voters—and lost the presidential race by 4 percentage points. Without a total brand makeover, how can Republicans expect to prevail with an even more diverse electorate in 2016?”
The country’s diversity trend is just beginning. The U.S. Census reports that American Indians and Alaska Natives grew 1.4 percent since 2013, compared to 0.5 percent for whites. “Even more diverse than millennials are the youngest Americans: those younger than 5 years old. In 2014, this group became majority-minority for the first time, with 50.2 percent being part of a minority race or ethnic group,” the Census said. So in 13 years the majority of new voters will be people of color and in twenty-five years a majority of all voters.
The GOP’s demographic challenge
The Republicans have a long term problem.
“Based on estimates of the composition of the 2016 electorate, if the next GOP nominee wins the same share of the white vote as Mitt Romney won in 2012 (59 percent), he or she would need to win 30 percent of the nonwhite vote,” Dan Balz recently wrote in The Washington Post. “Set against recent history, that is a daunting obstacle. Romney won only 17 percent of nonwhite voters in 2012. John McCain won 19 percent in 2008. George W. Bush won 26 percent in 2004.”
It’s important to remember, however, that presidential elections are 50 separate state elections that determine the electoral college vote. So ignore every poll you see that compares one Republican versus one Democrat. Instead think: Which states?
And it’s in these state contests where the American Indians and Alaska Native voters are becoming more important, especially as part of a coalition.
Nevada is a good place to start examining these trends. In 2012, Nevada voters were about 65 percent white. Next year’s voters are projected to drop to about 60 percent. So it will be possible to build a winning coalition made up of some white voters (a third or so) plus significant majorities from Latino, African American, Asian American and Native Americans.
Other states where such coalitions are possible: Alaska, Arizona, Wisconsin, and, eventually, Oklahoma.
The web site Five Thirty Eight has a nifty electronic interactive calculator that lets you project election scenarios. What happens if more minority voters turn out? Think landslide. More important: Break down the Republican constituencies and see where that party’s strength comes from. “Whites without college degrees are now the bedrock of the Republican coalition: They voted for Mitt Romney 62 percent to 36 percent in 2012,” Five Thirty Eight reports. “However, their share of the electorate is rapidly shrinking: They skew older and more rural, and we project that their share of the national vote will fall to 33 percent in 2016, down from 36 percent in 2012. Nonetheless, they still factor heavily in battleground states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin.”
What’s striking about this election so far is that the Republican candidates are not trying to build a coalition with minority voters, young voters, or even fix the gender gap that’s been a problem for decades.
Millennials are now the largest age group – some 90 million people – and are more independent than previous generations. Most millennials lean toward the Democrats, but even those who say they are Republican see the world very differently than today’s Republican candidates. Pew Research Center found: “The generational divisions among Republicans span different dimensions of political values. Some of the most striking generational differences within Republicans concern social issues like homosexuality and immigration, but younger Republicans are also less conservative when it comes to values related to the environment, role of government, the social safety net and the marketplace.”
So as we enter 2016 it’s important to discount the news coming from the campaign. It’s going to be a crazy year with all sorts of scenarios possible ranging from fights at the conventions to third-party runs. Sure, it’s even possible, that one of the Republican candidates will whip up magic and unite a coalition of voters. But that would take words designed to reach consensus with the new majority of voters. There will be another GOP debate Tuesday. (I will be live tweeting.) Watch and see if even one candidate recognizes that the road to the White House is red, brown, black and young.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports