The strangest lesson we can learn from the 2016 presidential election is that neither the Democrats; nor the Republicans, can be considered a national political party anymore.
The election results indicate neither party was able to win a clear majority nationwide. To make matters worse both parties face a geographic crisis with strong support in specific areas; but little or no influence in wide swaths of the country. The Democrats gained little traction in much of the heartland, while Republicans made no dent in the Democratic bastions on the coasts or in the big cities.
The origins of this dilemma are demographic the party’s bases are clustered in different areas of the country. To preserve their power bases; both the GOP and the Democrats have to adopt policies and take actions that are anathema to large segments of the population.
For example Republicans oppose gun control and abortion rights, even though polls indicate around 70% of the population favor those policies. Democrats strongly support foreign aid even though most Americans oppose the concept.
The Democrats Demographic Dilemma
This dilemma is about to get worse because of cultural and demographic changes that are transforming American society. Each of the parties faces a demographic crisis yet neither might be in a position to deal with it.
On paper the demographics favor the Democrats whose support comes from fast growing groups including millennials (now America’s largest generation with 83.1 million members), the unaffiliated America’s second largest and fastest growing religion according to the Pew Religion Survey and people of color are expected to make up a majority of the population in a few decades. Yet as Musa al-Gharbi convincingly pointed out in a recent American Conservative piece it is not that easy; Democrats’ share of the electorate actually seems to be dropping.
The Democrats problem stems from the nature of these voters and a lack of strong grass roots support. These groups are composed of what al-Gharbi calls “irregular voters” who have little interest in politics; and only participate in Presidential races, or when energized by an exceptional candidate such as Barrack Obama.
Such voters often lack strong community ties that encourage political participation. The problem is compounded by the Democrats’ lack of strong local organizations; and outsourcing of get out the vote efforts to unions and civil rights organizations, whose influence in American society is declining.
Another problem which Democrats are failing to acknowledge is that their party’s leadership of old white men; and a few old white women, does not look like its’ base. It was very hard for a young millennial of color to get excited about Hillary Clinton.
A final problem is that such voters often lack strong economic incentives to vote. They are not likely to rely on Social Security to pay the bills or Medicare for healthcare.
Geographically such groups present a challenge for Democrats because they are clustered in certain areas such as the Sunbelt, the Northeast and California. They are also more likely to be urban.
The Republicans’ Strange Demographic Advantage
The Republicans’ Demographic Dilemma is a little easier to understand. Its support comes from declining groups including whites, churchgoers and older generations such as baby boomers.
The observation that the Republicans’ base is slowly dying off is a valid one. Daniel J. McGraw estimated that 2.75 million GOP voters died between 2012 and 2016 in Politco. Yet as 2016’s electoral results show this does not automatically help Democrats for a few reasons:
- Since Republican voters tend to be older they have more incentives to vote; in the form of Social Security, Medicare, Veterans’ benefits, property taxes etc.
- Republican voters tend to come from more traditional communities; where there are strong cultural pressures for political involvement not present in newer cities and suburbs. IE they are more likely to belong to groups like country clubs, churches or veterans’ organizations that encourage political participation.
- Unlike Democrats Republicans have developed strong grass-roots organizations and get out the vote efforts. The Republican Party itself has the ability to mobilize large numbers of voters. Democrats have historically relied on groups like unions, which are in decline for that.
- The Republicans’ rural focus gives them a greater geographic spread. They have more seats in Congress; and the Electoral Congress, because the GOP simply controls more states.
This means Republicans can win without a popular candidate. They can also effectively stop Democrats with a candidate who siphons off small segments of their support, which Trump did in 2016. Polls indicate he got more support from nonwhites, younger voters and people of color than Romney did in 2012.
The Republicans’ Demographic and Geographic Crisis
Despite that the Republicans are facing a serious geographic and demographic crisis that makes a replay of the Trump miracle unlikely in the years ahead.
The demographic changes that transformed Ronald Reagan’s California into a state so blue Trump did not bother to campaign there, are being repeated in several states the Republicans need. This “Californication” includes growing income inequality, growing younger populations, white flight, fast-growing immigrant and nonwhite populations and increasing urbanization.
States facing Californication include; Texas (38 electoral votes), Georgia (16 electoral votes), Florida (29 electoral votes), Arizona (11 electoral votes), Nevada (six electoral votes) and North Carolina (15 electoral votes). A loss of two or more of those states would cost the GOP the election.
The party will face greater problems if it loses Congressional seats in those states. It failed to pick up a Senate seat in Nevada. A popular and influential Republican; Senator (John McCain), faced a strong challenge in Arizona. The Republicans also lost at least one House seat in Florida.
Nor is Californication necessarily reversible, two states that underwent the process; Colorado and Virginia, went solidly for Clinton despite heroic campaigning by Trump in both. That means Nevada; which Trump lost despite intensive campaigning, might be dead to the GOP. That means predictions of a “coming Democratic majority;” or rather a Democratic-leaning majority, are more credible than critics think.
These trends indicate that political polarization will continue and get worse. One obvious outcome is that Republicans will be more reliant on their traditional bastions in the Midwest.
That will be problematic because some of those states are not as reliably Red as the pundits claim. Trump’s margin of victory in one key state there; Wisconsin, was very narrow; he won it by just 22,748 votes. His margin in Iowa was so narrow, that some observers actually called that state for Clinton.
The demographics indicate that deep divisions and political polarization will continue; because neither party is in a position to get a convincing majority for the foreseeable future. Instead we’re likely to see more hard fought elections, razor-thin margins of victory and red-hot political passions in the streets in the years ahead.