Has the Emerging Democratic Majority Re-Emerged?
Doubtful. Very Doubtful.
News outlets have been taking note of the mood of optimism in Democratic circles as they look to 2024. This mood has been reinforced by the release of new data from the respected big data firm Catalist, which highlighted some favorable trends for the Democrats in the 2022 election. Some have become practically giddy. Eric Levitz of New York magazine put out an article “The Return of the Emerging Democratic Majority?” based on the new data.
On one level, this is remarkable. We are talking about a party that does not control the House, has just a two seat majority in the Senate (even counting Kyrsten Sinema!) and whose incumbent president and presumed standard-bearer, Joe Biden, is both really old and really unpopular. Polling on Biden and his performance in office is almost uniformly brutal. In the latest CNN poll, Biden’s overall approval rating is 40 percent, his rating on the federal budget is 35 percent, on the economy, 34 percent and, bringing up the rear, on immigration, 30 percent. In the same poll, just 31 percent say Biden has had the right priorities in office, compared to 69 percent who say he “hasn’t paid enough attention to the country’s most important problems”. Ominously, in a recent Washington Post/ABC poll the public preferred Trump’s job handling of the economy to Biden’s by 54 to 36 percent.
Yes, the Democrats have the Republicans right where they want them! More seriously, this is clearly a very steep hill to climb. Given this, why are Democrats so optimistic, to the point where the idea of a newly-emerging Democratic majority is being entertained?
In many ways it all goes back to the 2022 election, where the Democrats defied expectations and history by overperforming in competitive races, winding up with an additional Senate seat and only modest losses in the House. The new Catalist data on 2022 provide some data congenial to Democrats’ optimism.
Earlier data from AP/NORC VoteCast had Hispanic Democratic support deteriorating once again in 2022 after quite a sharp decline in 2020. For what it’s worth, the exit polls showed the same trend. But Catalist, a generally superior data source, indicates that in fact Democratic support held steady among these voters in 2022, neither gaining nor losing much relative to 2020.
AP/NORC VoteCast showed young (18-29 year old) voter support declining for the Democrats in 2022 relative to 2020. But Catalist shows the Democrats’ margin among young voters increasing by 5 points in the 2022 election to a 64-35 advantage. In addition, the Democrats improved by 2 points among the 30-44 year old group, now composed primarily of members of the Millennial generation.
The Catalist data also permit comparisons across demographics between Democrats’ national performance and performance in “highly contested” Senate and gubernatorial elections. These comparisons show that, for most demographic groups, Democrats in 2022 improved more or slipped less relative to 2020 in competitive elections than they did nationally. This helps explain how Democrats did so much better in competitive elections than one would infer from the national voting patterns.
But before Democrats start popping the champagne corks, there are some other considerations to bear in mind.
First, while Democrats did not sustain further losses among Hispanic voters, neither did they make much of a dent in clawing back their losses in the 2020 election. The Catalist data show a 16-point loss in the Democratic advantage among Hispanic voters between 2016 and 2020, so Democratic support levels remain substantially depressed relative to 2016.
Moreover, among other nonwhite groups, Democrats did lose support relative to 2020. Their margin declined by 6 points among black voters, by 13 points among Asian voters (this decline is actually larger than that shown in AP/NORC VoteCast) and by 22 points among “other race” voters. Looking back to 2018, the Catalist data show a 12-point Democratic margin decline among nonwhite voters overall and a 15-point decline among nonwhite working-class (noncollege) voters. Going farther back to 2012, the Democratic decline has been an astonishing 25 points among nonwhite working-class voters (this compares to a six point decline overall in the Catalist data).
Second, it is true that the youth vote was comparatively good for the Democrats in 2022. But what has caught the imagination of liberal analysts is the idea that younger generation voters (Millennials and Gen Z) will become a larger proportion of voters over time (right now they are still only a quarter) and, if one assumes they will retain their current levels of Democratic support, that will give the Democrats a big advantage moving forward.
This argument is just another version of the demographics is destiny argument more typically applied to the rise of nonwhite voters. And it has the same virtues and defects of the rising nonwhite voter share argument. Here’s how the argument is being repurposed: if voter groups favorable to the Democrats (racial minorities, now younger generations) are growing while unfavorable groups (whites, now older generations) are declining, that should be good news for the Democrats. This is called a “mix effect”: a change in electoral margins attributable to the changing mix of voters.
These mix effects are what people typically have in mind when they think of the pro-Democratic effects of rising diversity (now generational succession). But mix effects, by definition, assume no shifts in voter preference: they are an all-else-equal concept. If voter preferences remain the same, then mix effects mean that the Democrats will come out ahead. That is a mathematical fact.
But voter preferences do not generally remain the same. We have seen this in the case of rising nonwhite voter share, as white working-class voters moved toward the Republicans and, more recently, nonwhite voters themselves have become more Republican. This has cancelled out much of the presumed benefit for the Democrats from the changing racial mix of voters.
To summarize the general case: while the mix effects of changing demographics may indeed favor the Democrats, these effects are fairly modest in any given election and can easily be overwhelmed by shifts in voter preference against the Democrats among unfavorable demographic groups. In addition, even among favorable demographic groups, the electoral benefit to the Democrats from their growth can be completely neutralized by shifts against the Democrats within those demographic groups. These points are as applicable to the changing generational mix as they have been to the changing racial mix.
So Democrats may want, as it were, to contain their enthusiasm.
Finally, the same goes for the idea that Democrats will be able to overperform in competitive races in 2024 just as they did in 2022. That assumes that issues will play out in the next election as they did in the previous. Consider the issue of abortion. Michael Baharaeen’s article on The Liberal Patriot points out some of the problems:
Even as the threat to abortion rights has energized much of the Democratic base, there’s a meaningful segment of voters who support protecting a woman’s right to choose but who will also vote Republican. According to the AP VoteCast survey of 2022 midterm voters, nearly a third of all voters who said abortion should be legal in all or most cases voted Republican in their U.S. House race. The survey also showed that those who said they “somewhat favor” a law “guaranteeing access to legal abortion nationwide” broke for Republicans by 13 points, 55–42 percent. Perhaps an even clearer way to think about this is that the same electorate that supported making abortion legal in all or most cases by an almost two-to-one margin supported Republicans in the national U.S. House vote by nearly three points.
This reality was also evident in the five states where abortion rights were literally on the ballot in 2022: California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont. The electorates in all five backed the pro-choice option on their respective ballot measures, and yet this did not uniformly translate to greater support for Democrats. Across these states, Democratic candidates underperformed the “pro-choice/defend abortion rights” option by an average of about 11.4 points….
[I]n the [2023 Wisconsin election where Democrat Janet Protasiewicz won a state Supreme Court seat], voters across the state overwhelmingly backed three conservative-leaning policies that were on the ballot, including two related to stricter cash bail rules and one expressing support for work requirements for those receiving welfare from the state. All three measures received at least two-thirds support, and a majority of voters in every county backed each one. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that many voters have views that cut across ideological lines, and that makes them unpredictable: just because a voter supports abortion access doesn’t mean they are liberal or will vote Democratic all the time.
Words of wisdom. The Democrats have a long hard road to get past parity with Republicans and neither demographic change nor replicating the 2022 playbook is likely to be a short cut.