Will Census Trends Save the Democrats?
Five Reasons Why That Just Ain’t So
The latest data release from the 2020 Census, which will be used to guide decennial redistricting, has been greeted rather breathlessly by the nation’s media and has been absolute catnip for commentators and observers who lean toward the Democrats. Consider some of these headlines:
None of this is necessarily wrong, though it’s worth noting that these findings are consistent with trends of long-standing rather than something qualitatively new. What is questionable however is the political gloss that tends to put on these results. Leftist filmmaker Michael Moore called the announcement “the best day ever in US history”, which, while over the top, fairly represents the delight among most progressives that a presumably conservative white population is in precipitous decline while a presumably liberal nonwhite population keeps growing, the harbinger of a diverse, progressive future America.
At least that’s the story. But, as noted, these trends are ongoing, not new. Why should they now lead to progressive hegemony when they haven’t before? Many on the left appear to believe that, whatever the story up ‘til now, we have finally reached some sort of tipping point where the effects of underlying demographic trends can no longer be denied. Maybe. But then again maybe not.
Here are five reasons the Census trends may not be quite the bonus for Democrats so many want to believe (and others fear).
1. Whiter Than You Think. The new Census data pegs the white (white nonhispanic alone) population of the country as around 58 percent down 6 points from a level of 64 percent in 2010. The 58 percent figure was a little lower than expected based on projections (though the 6 point drop over 10 years was actually very similar to previous decadal declines). One possible reason for the unexpectedly large decline might be that the Census changed their race question from 2010 by adding a “print origins” specification after the white checkbox that respondents were instructed to fill out. This may have led to some confusion and probably was a factor in a striking increase in the reported multiracial population.
In addition, and crucially for political-analytic purposes, the proportion of whites who are actual voters is far higher than their percentage in the overall population. Averaging the three best currently available sources on the demographics of 2020 voters (Catalist, the Census Current Population Survey Voter Supplement and the Pew Validated Voter Survey), the proportion of white voters in the 2020 voting electorate looks to be a little under 72 percent. Thus, there is a vast chasm separating the proportion of whites in the overall population and the proportion who are voters, which is much higher.
This is true across states, both less and more diverse. Michigan is 72 percent white overall but had 80 percent white voters in 2020, according to Census data. Pennsylvania is 74 percent white but had 83 percent white voters; Wisconsin is 79 percent white but had 89 percent white voters. Most of these differences are attributable to ineligibility among nonwhites (too young, noncitizens) rather than to lower turnout among eligible voters.
Also according to Census data, Arizona is just 53 percent white overall, but had 65 percent white voters in 2020. Georgia is half white overall, but had 60 percent white voters; Texas is 40 percent white but 57 percent white among voters. While a large share of the differences here are still attributable to ineligibility, more is attributable to lower turnout, particularly in Texas.
2. The White College Factor. An underappreciated fact about the 2020 election is that Biden’s improvements in performance relative to Hillary Clinton in 2016—the improvements that enabled him to beat Donald Trump while Clinton lost—are almost entirely attributable to improved support among whites, especially white college-educated voters. That is, the proximate reason for Biden’s victory had little to do with the race-ethnic diversification trends highlighted by the Census.
According to Catalist data, on a national level white college voters moved over 8 margin points toward Biden in 2020 (based on the two party vote), greater than Biden’s gains among white noncollege voters (3 points) and starkly different from nonwhite voters who actually moved toward Trump.
The importance of white college voters is clear on the national level but can also be seen in key states like Arizona and Georgia by estimating contributions to Democratic margin (CDM) for different demographic groups. CDM is calculated by multiplying an election’s proportion of voters in a given demographic by their Democratic margin in that election. The result can be compared across elections to see how demographic groups change in their contribution to the overall Democratic margin—and therefore, in these cases, which groups enabled Biden to tip these states to the Democrats.
Start with Arizona. Arizona did not escape the nationwide pattern of Hispanic voters moving toward Trump. As a result, despite the underlying trend toward more eligible Latino voters and excellent turnout performance, the overall CDM of Arizona Hispanic voters actually went down by a little less than a point in 2020. On the other hand, the CDM of white voters, driven especially by white college-educated voters, improved by around 5 points—more than enough to account for the shift in Arizona to a Democratic advantage in 2020. In other words, it was educated whites, not Hispanics, who won Arizona for Biden.
In Georgia, the most important part of the nonwhite vote, black voters, had lower Democratic margins as well as slightly reduced voter share due to declining relative turnout. As a result, the CDM of black voters in 2020 probably declined slightly in the state. As in Arizona, the Democratic shift from a deficit in 2016 to an advantage in 2020 can be accounted for almost entirely by a sharp shift toward the Democrats among white voters, especially white college-educated voters. This shift was the major factor behind Democrats carrying the state.
This suggests that white college voters will loom large in future Democratic fortunes. Even as whites decline as an overall share of the country and in all states, the Democrats are clearly reliant on a key segment of this declining demographic. Democrats will need to ensure that they retain much of their increased white college support—a good portion of which may have been driven by opposition to Trump—regardless of the race-ethnic diversification trends tracked by the Census.
3. Hispanic Trends. As the Census documents, the biggest single driver of the increased nonwhite population is the growth of the Hispanic population. They are by far the largest group within the Census-designated nonwhite population (19 percent vs. 12 percent for blacks). While their representation among voters considerably lags their representation in the overall population, it is fair to say that voting trends among this group will decisively shape voting trends among nonwhites in the future since their share of voters will continue to increase while black voter share is expected to remain roughly constant.
And these Hispanic voting trends have not been favorable for the Democrats. According to Catalist, in 2020 Latinos had an amazingly large 16 point margin shift toward Trump. Among Latinos, Cubans did have the largest shifts toward Trump (26 points), but those of Mexican origin also had a 12 point shift and even Puerto Ricans moved toward Trump by 18 points. Moreover, Latino shifts toward Trump were widely dispersed geographically. Hispanic shifts toward Trump were not confined to Florida (28 points) and Texas (18 points) but also included states like Nevada (16 points), Pennsylvania (12 points), Arizona (10 points) and Georgia (8 points).
These reduced margins are why, despite Hispanics’ increased vote share in 2020, their contribution to Democrats’ improved national margin in this election was actually negative—that is, they made a negative one point contribution to Biden's vote margin relative to Clinton’s in 2016. The same pattern can be seen in key swing states.
What lies behind these unfavorable trends which surprised most Democrats? One possibility is that Democrats fundamentally misunderstood the nature of this voter group and what they really care about. Hispanics were lumped in with “people of color” and were assumed to embrace the activism around racial issues that dominated so much of the political scene in 2020, particularly in the summer. This was a flawed assumption. The reality of the Hispanic population is that they are, broadly speaking, an overwhelmingly working class, economically progressive, socially moderate constituency that cares above all, about jobs, the economy and health care.
For example, in the post-election wave of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group (VSG) panel survey, well over 70 percent of Hispanic voters rated jobs, the economy, health care and the coronavirus as issues that were “very important” to them. No other issues even came close to this level. Crime as an issue rated higher with these voters than immigration or racial equality, two issues that Democrats assumed would clear the path to big gains among Hispanic voters.
In this context, it is interesting to note that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement did not rate very highly among Hispanics. In the national exit poll, Hispanic voters were split close to evenly about BLM, 47 percent unfavorable to 49 percent favorable. This significantly trails not just black voters, but also white college graduates, who rated BLM 61 percent favorable to 35 percent unfavorable.
Consistent with this, Latino voters evinced little sympathy with the more radical demands that came to be associated with BLM. In VSG data, despite showing support for some specific policing reforms, Hispanics opposed defunding the police, decreasing the size of police forces and the scope of their work and reparations for the descendants of slaves by 2:1 or more.
An important thing to remember about the Hispanic population is that they are heavily oriented toward upward mobility and see themselves as being able to benefit from available opportunities to attain that. Three-fifths of Latinos in the national exit poll said they believed life would be better for the next generation of Americans. In the VSG data, these voters agreed, by 9 points, that racial minorities have mostly fair opportunities to advance in America, by 11 points agreed that America is a fair society where everyone has a chance to get ahead and by 20 points agreed that “Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
They are also patriotic. By well over 3:1, Hispanics in the VSG survey said they would rather be a citizen of the United States than any other country in the world and by 35 points said they were proud of the way American democracy works. Clearly, this constituency does not harbor particularly radical views on the nature of American society and its supposed intrinsic racism and white supremacy.
Equally clearly, assumptions that the continued growth of the Hispanic population, as revealed by the Census, is an automatic dividend for the Democrats are highly questionable.
4. The Class Problem. Attention paid to Census race-ethnic trends tends to avert the political gaze from issues of class. And yet class-based trends are hugely important to American politics today and have a great deal to do with how race-ethnic trends are felt (or not felt). It is indisputable that in 2016 the key political development had nothing to do with the changing distribution of voters by race but was rather the sharp shift of white working class (noncollege) voters into the Republican column, allowing Trump to squeeze out a narrow win.
But the focus on Democrats’ white working class problem, which is now widely understood, has obscured the problems Democrats have been developing with the nonwhite working class. While nonwhite voters as a whole moved toward the GOP in the 2020 election, working class nonwhites moved more sharply toward Trump than college nonwhites (12 margin points vs. 7 points, based on Catalist’s two party vote data). Surprisingly, working class nonwhite women actually moved more toward Trump (14 points) than working class nonwhite men (9 points).
It is particularly striking to note that since 2012, running against Trump twice, Democrats have lost 18 points off of their margin among nonwhite working class voters. That obviously undercuts the Democrat-friendly effects of rising racial diversity. This is underscored by the under-appreciated fact that working class voters still vastly outnumber college-educated voters. Among whites, working class voters were a bit over three-fifths of the vote. But among nonwhites, the working class contingent was a full two thirds of voters in 2020.
Hispanic working class voters were particularly likely to shift to the Republicans in 2020. Pew validated voter data show a 30 point shift toward the GOP relative to 2018 (2016 not available), more than twice the 14 point shift among college Hispanics. And in terms of support levels, the Pew data indicate that working class Hispanics gave Trump a remarkable 41 percent of their vote in 2020. This is especially noteworthy since the Hispanic vote is the most heavily working class nonwhite vote, pushing 80 percent working class according to Pew.
All this suggests trends among working class nonwhites will likely determine the future of the nonwhite vote—and therefore what benefit, if any, Democrats will derive from the race-ethnic trends identified by the Census.
5. Inefficient Distribution of Voters. Finally, there is a geographical dimension to the distribution of voters that tends to cut against the Democrats. Broadly speaking, Republicans are stronger in less-urbanized areas and among white working class voters, both of whom tend to punch above their weight in terms of their effect on political outcomes. Conversely, the Democrats’ heavy concentration of support in the most urbanized and diverse areas is not efficient for translating their overall support among voters into electoral victories.
This inefficiency will be likely be enhanced by decennial redistricting based on the Census data where Republicans have a clear advantage in terms of controlling the process at the state level. As 538 has noted, there are some mitigating factors here in terms of the pattern of population losses and gains, but realistically it’s still advantage GOP in the redrawing of district lines.
These five items make it clear that the Democrats’ efforts to build and sustain a majority electoral coalition are not guaranteed in any way by the race-ethnic trends detailed in the Census data and dwelt on by the media. Instead the challenges faced by the Democrats have simply mutated, interacting in profound ways with class and cultural issues that have undercut—and may continue to undercut—presumed gains from rising racial diversity.