One of the big unknowns heading into the 2016 election cycle is the degree to which shifting population demographics will screw over whichever white guy the Republicans nominate for president. Rising shares of black, Latino and Asian voters have tilted former swing states slightly toward the Democrats, and turned a few red states into genuine toss-ups.
The declining share of the white vote, which is crucial to any Republican’s White House hopes, means that the GOP will have to figure out a way to appeal to minority voters. And that’s no small task, given that the party’s policy agenda has for quite some time been either dismissive or outright hostile toward the interests of those same voters.
This week, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a study on how shifting demographics could affect the 2016 presidential election, and it should scare the hell out of any Republican who still believes he has a lily-white path to the presidency.
First, a bit of background. The high watermark for Republican share of the minority vote in a presidential election belongs to George W. Bush, who won reelection in 2004 with somewhere between 40 and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, 44 percent of the Asian vote, and 11 percent of the black vote. Since then minority support for Republican presidential candidates has plummeted – in 2012, Mitt Romney took 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, 26 percent of the Asian vote, and a barely perceptible 6 percent of the black vote. In that same time period, the overall share of white voters fell from 77 percent to 72 percent, while the percentages of Hispanic, Asian and black voters all ticked upward.
To get a sense of how these changing voter trends will play out next year, CAP ran a few simulations. First they gamed out what would happen in 2016 if “voter turnout rates and political persuasion among all racial and ethnic groups remain the same as they were in 2012,” which is basically dealing the GOP the same bad hand Mitt Romney played. Rising minority population in key states means that, if this scenario were to play out, the Democrats would solidify their grip on purplish-bluish states like Colorado, and stand a much better chance of retaking purple states they lost in 2012, like North Carolina.
That stands to reason, but things get much more interesting once you start improving the GOP’s share of the minority vote. CAP’s next simulation was to grant the Republicans’ 2016 candidate the same level of support from racial and ethnic groups that George W. Bush drew in 2004. This obviously improves the Republican’s chances, but not by as much as you might think. Florida, for example, tilts back into the Republican column, but by less than 1 percent (compared to the 5-point win Bush scored in ’04). Ohio, on the other hand, remains blue, and comfortably so. “For Republicans,” the report concludes, “simply repeating the history of 2004 — obtaining significant support among voters of color — will not necessarily mean a win in many swing states, including Ohio and Nevada.”
There are, of course, a bunch of caveats and grains of salt to be had, and the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake lays them all out. And, obviously, elections are not decided by demographics alone. But as it stands, the electoral map already allows for Democrats to lose a few key states and still take the presidency (Obama could have lost Ohio and Florida in 2012 and still been reelected), owing in part to the shift in voter demographics and preferences over the last few election cycles.
What the CAP study shows is that the GOP would have an extremely difficult time getting over this demographic hump even if you were to grant them the best hand they’ve ever played. And while there are certainly no guarantees in politics, it’s tough to see how the party that lets Steve King call the shots on immigration policy manages that sort of turnaround in less than two years.
Simon Maloy is Salon’s political writer.