Continuing 538’s interview series, today we feature Ruy Teixeira, one of the premier political demographers in America today and co-author of the highly acclaimed–and 2008-vindicated–book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. He is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.
I asked Ruy to discuss recent demographic trends, some great reports he recently issued, and what his takeaways were from the 2008 election. As ever, his answers are as detailed and rigorous as the many reports he produces every year, many of which are linked to below and which I highly recommend.
Fivethirtyeight.com: First, your book with John Judis, The Emerging Democratic Majority, received significant validation in the 2008 election results. If you don’t mind taking a bit of a victory lap, how did you and Judis forecast the emergence of this Democratic majority seven or eight years ago, when few others could?
Ruy Teixeira: Perhaps it helped that John and I both read a lot of history, a habit that encourages one to take the long view and look for underlying patterns of change. Many political observers and analysts are concerned to the point of obsession with what just happened and what will happen very soon. That is, their preoccupations are short term and their explanations of politics are similarly short-term. Some of this is useful, of course, and I think a fair amount myself about what is going to happen in the next vote in Congress and or in the next election.
But those short-term preoccupations can get you into trouble when trying to think more broadly about where the country is going. Short-term analyses can wind up dominating the way you think about the future; it becomes harder to look beyond short-term outcomes to factors that might be fundamentally reshaping the political terrain.
Thinking about these underlying factors is what drove John and I to write the book. The more we considered these underlying factors and sifted through the relevant data, the more it seemed like the country was evolving in a way that, on net, was very good for the Democrats and very bad for the Republicans. Demographically, geographically, economically, attitudinally—the effects of what you might term the transition to a postindustrial society were all pointing in the same direction.
This led us to believe that, despite Bush’s so-called victory in 2000, the country was headed in a pro-Democratic direction that would likely lead to electoral dominance by Democrats within the decade. And we stuck to our guns even in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, which we fully realized would be highly beneficial to Bush and the Republicans for some time. But we did not think that 9/11 could reverse the long-term effects of the underlying trends we had identified. We maintained that position through the 2002 and 2004 elections, the latter of which sent many progressives into paroxysms of despair. Rove and the mighty Republican machine will rule forever! Democrats are doomed! We did not share these sentiments. Indeed, Bush’s victory in 2004 was unusually weak for an incumbent President, especially one who could pose as a wartime President. We believed underlying trends would assert themselves in Bush’s second term and they did.
538: You recently put out a report summarizing some key developments of the 2008 election cycle. Can you highlight one or two that are the biggest takeaways from that report?
RT: Yes, that report is New Progressive America, from the Center for American Progress’ recently started Progressive Studies Program, which I co-direct with John Halpin. I do not believe you will find anywhere a more comprehensive, detailed treatment of the trends that have tilted America progressive.
As for takeaways, there are many, but here are some of the most important. Start with this one: between 1988 and 2008, the minority share of voters in presidential elections has risen by 11 percentage points, while the share of increasingly progressive white college graduate voters has risen by 4 points. But the share of white working class voters, who have remained conservative in their orientation, has plummeted by 15 points. Want to know why McCain’s strategy failed in Pennsylvania? Same story: white working class voters declined by 25 points between 1988 and 2008, while white college graduates rose by 16 points and minorities by 8 points. Or in Nevada: white working class voters are down 24 points over the time period, while minority voters are up an amazing 19 points and white college graduates by 4 points.
More generally, progressives are doing very well among almost all growing demographic groups, while conservatives are retaining strength only where the country is stagnating or declining. One of the more dramatic manifestations of this pattern is the rise of the Millennial generation (those born 1978-2000). Millennial adults voted for Obama by a 34-point margin, 66 percent to 32 percent, compared to a 9-point margin for Kerry among 18- to 29-year-olds in 2004 when that age group was not exclusively Millennials. Between now and 2018, the number of Millennials of voting age will increase by about four and a half million a year, and Millennial eligible voters will increase by about 4 million a year. In 2020—the first presidential election where all Millennials will have reached voting age—this generation will be 103 million strong, of which about 90 million will be eligible voters. Those 90 million Millennial eligible voters will represent just under 40 percent of America’s eligible voters. (Much more on this generation’s size, voting behavior, demographics, and views on cultural, foreign policy, role of government, and economic issues may be found in my Progressive Studies Program report with David Madland, New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation.)
The geographical takeaway is the close relationship between pro-progressive political shifts and dynamic metropolitan growth areas across the country, particularly within contested states. Progressive gains have been heavily concentrated in not just the urbanized cores of these metro areas, but also in the growing suburbs around them. Even in exurbia, progressives have made big gains. Only in the smallest metro areas and in small town rural America were progressive gains minimal. And only in the most isolated, least populated rural counties did progressives actually lose ground. As with demography, where America is growing, progressives are gaining, while conservative strength is associated with stagnation and decline.
538: In terms of demographic groups and performance, what from the 2008 results caught you by surprise because it was unexpected?
RT: I was most surprised by the extent of the distributional shifts in the electorate, which exceeded my expectations. Between 2004 and 2008, the share of white working class voters decreased by 4 points, while the minority share rose 3 points, which is quite a bit faster than historical trend.# It will be interesting to see if this rapid pace keeps up in 2010 and 2012.
538: Same question, but in reverse: what didn’t happen that you expected to happen in 2008?
Based on pre-election polls, I expected Obama to do better than he did among white working class voters—he lost them by 18 points on election day. Thanks to the distributional shifts mentioned above, very strong performance among minority voters and a sharp progressive shift among white college graduate voters, Obama was still able to achieve a solid victory. Moving forward, however, this poor performance among white working class voters represents a serious progressive vulnerability.
But help may be on the way. Not only did Obama win white Millennials overall, he also won both white Millennial college graduate and noncollege voters (by 16 and 6 points respectively). Some may question the significance of the latter finding since the 18-29 year old noncollege white group contains a considerable proportion of students and is therefore a flawed representation of the young white working class. However, if analysis is confined to 25-29 year olds to eliminate the problem of mixing students on track for a four year degree with other white noncollege youth, the results are even stronger. Obama won 25-29 year old white noncollege voters by 12 points, 54-42, a stunning 40-point swing relative to Kerry’s 35-63 drubbing among the same group in 2004.
The strong support of white college graduate Millennials for Obama is consistent with the continuing shift of white college graduates toward progressives and should strengthen that already-existing trend. But the support of white noncollege Millennials for Obama could indicate a new trend. As relatively progressive white working class Millennials replace older white working class voters in the electorate, the white working class as a whole could become less conservative and more open to progressive ideas and candidates. Given Obama’s big deficit among the white working class in the 2008 election, this would be a significant development, mitigating progressives’ main demographic weakness and adding to their burgeoning coalition.
538: Catholics have long been a bellwether of presidential results, and were again in 2008—Obama carried them and he won. Is there a particular demographic subgroup pundits may not be paying close attention to that you think will emerge as a key bellwether in the coming decades?
RT: Well, I don’t know about bellwethers—a group that points in the winning direction every election. I’m more interested in groups whose movement tells you a lot about where American politics is going, regardless of whether they do or do not point in the right direction all the time. Some groups, for example, can be counted on to generally vote conservative, but the magnitude of the conservative margin is of considerable interest.
One such group is whites with some college, whom I have termed “America’s most under-rated demographic.” They form a critical part of the white working class and get very little specific attention as group. They are about 40 percent of the white working class today, a percent that has been growing over time. Moreover, whites with some college have been stable as a percent of the overall electorate, while the rest of the white working class has been declining sharply.
Whites with some college have, by definition, more education than the rest of the white working class and tend to have more skilled jobs and earn higher pay. They are the most upwardly mobile portion of the white working class. For many elections, the GOP has captured the loyalty of these aspirational voters. In 2004, this group voted for George Bush by 25 points. In 2008, Obama managed a fairly solid 7 point improvement in the progressive deficit among these voters. But he managed only a 3 point improvement among the less educated segment, those with only a high school diploma or less.
This result is consistent with research I did with William Frey before the election, where we found this group trending strongly toward progressives in many swing states over the 1988-2004 time period. If this trend continues, conservative margins among the white working class will be substantially narrowed with big implications for American politics.
538: The Democratic congressional majorities are basically 60 senate seats and 257 House seats. Do you think we’ll see much movement in those totals in 2010, and why or why not?
RT: I don’t think we’ll see much movement—a reasonable expectation is a midteen loss for the Democrats in the House (the post-World War II historical average loss for the President’s party in the first term midterm election is 16 seats) and perhaps a few pickups in the Senate for the Democrats, given the distribution of 2010 Senate races. That said, to the extent there is potential for big change, it is clearly on the downside given the state of the economy. This will come as no great revelation to anybody that much depends on the state of the economy around the middle of next year. If it’s more terrible than expected, especially on the unemployment front, there could be big Democratic losses in the House. On the other hand, if the recovery exceeds expectations and indicators are sharply improving by that time, the Democrats could hold their own in the House and do a little bit better than current expectations in the Senate.
538: Those 2010 results will have some bearing on the control of redistricting. Do you have any sense of which party stands to benefit the most from redrawing the House maps for the coming decade, and why?
RT: That is an interesting question and frankly I really don’t have a good sense of it. There are a number of variables and they don’t all go in the same direction. First, there will be a net gain of around 7 in the number of House seats and electoral votes located in red states (as operationalized by the 2008 election results). That’s good for the GOP. On the other hand, the same trends that are driving population growth in seat/EV gaining red states are also turning these states purpler (Arizona is a great example of this; see my study of the Intermountain West with William Frey for more). That’s good for the Democrats. And, in terms of House seats, where those seats are added within states has to bear some relationship to where the growth is actually taking place. For example, in Texas, which will probably gain 4 seats, candidates for additional seats include Democratic-trending metros like Dallas, Austin and Houston and Democratic south Texas, not super-conservative white rural and small town areas. That’s also a plus for the Democrats.
And then of course there’s the whole messy business of redrawing district lines when seats are added and subtracted. Famously, this redrawing can be gamed for partisan purposes by state legislatures and governors which typically have a major role in the process. Overall, Democrats now control 27 state legislatures and the GOP just 14. This advantage extends to the states that are expected to gain or lose seats: Democrats control 11 state legislatures and the GOP controls 6. So that’s good for the Democrats. But to add in a complicating factor, the states controlled by the GOP will add around 9 seats, while the states controlled by the Democrats will lose 8 seats. And the results of 2010 election could reduce Democrats’ current advantage in state legislatures and governorships. So it’s a bit murky.
Plus, remember what happened the last time we redistricted. The Republicans were thought to have done very well for themselves. But over the course of the decade political change and demographic trends drastically reduced the partisan effectiveness of the new boundaries. The same thing could happen after 2010, regardless of which party seems to benefit initially from reapportionment and redistricting.
538: You recently finished a new report on what you see as the end of the culture wars. Tell us please what your key findings are in this new report.
RT: Yes, that new report is The Coming End of the Culture Wars. In the report, I argue that the culture wars as we have known them are likely coming to an end. Demographic change– the rise of the Millennial generation, increasing religious and family diversity and the decline of the culturally conservative white working class–is undercutting both the level and salience of conservative cultural views, thereby reducing the effectiveness of such politics. That will not prevent conservative activists around particular culture wars issues from continuing to press their case. Indeed, reaction to their current desperate plight may lead them to intensify their efforts in some states, especially where demographic change has been slow or where local right wing culture war institutions retain strength. But there will be diminishing incentives for politicians to take up these causes for the very simple reason that they are losers.
One great example of how demographic change is undercutting the culture wars is gay marriage. Millennials are so much more favorable to legalizing gay marriage than older generations that, by sometime in the next decade, there will be majoritarian public support for legalizing gay marriage as Millennials fully enter the electorate and take the place of much older, far more conservative voters. Other areas where big demographic effects can be observed is on gender roles and family values, and on race, where rising demographic groups’ proclivities will tilt the country even farther toward tolerance, non-traditionalism, and respect for diversity.
Immigration is yet another issue where demographic change will mitigate culture war conflict. For quite a while, polls have been showing public support for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, and a relative lack of enthusiasm for an enforcement-only approach. That support should grow over time, as should positive feelings about immigrants and immigration, since the white working class, which has relatively negative feelings in this area, is being supplanted by groups like Hispanics, white college graduates, and professionals, whose feelings about immigration are far more positive. And then there is the rise of the Millennial generation. About three quarters (73 percent) of 18-29 year old Millennials supported giving illegal immigrants “the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements” in an April 2009 Washington Post/ABC News poll, which is 31 points higher than support among seniors.
The winding down of the culture wars will certainly not stop those with progressive and conservative cultural views from clustering at the progressive and conservative ends of politics. It will still be the case that voters will be attracted to the political “home” where they feel culturally most comfortable. Conservatives will attempt to capitalize on this by giving a cultural overtone to non-cultural issues such as taxes and government spending. But the aggressive use of specifically cultural issues to divide voters will become less and less common. And the country will be a better place for it.
538: Let’s role play a moment and pretend you are the Ruy Teixeira of the right, not left, and Michael Steele calls you into his office and says, “Ruy, map us out a path to return to power.” What advice would you give him?
RT: OK, here’s my off the hook advice for Mr. Steele and his beleaguered party.
1. Move to the center on social issues. As noted in my previous answer, the culture wars may have worked for awhile, but shifting demographics make it a loser for the party today and moving forward. A more moderate approach would help with Millennials, where the party must close a yawning gap, and with white college graduates, who still lean Republican but just barely. The party also needs to make a breakthrough with Hispanics and that won’t happen without shifting its image toward social tolerance, especially on immigration.
2. Pay attention to whites with some college and, generally, to young white working class voters. The party’s hold on the white working class is not secure and, if that slips, the party doesn’t have much to build on to form a successful new coalition. And that probably means offering them something more than culture wars nostrums and anti-tax jeremiads.
3. Another demographic target should be white college graduates, especially those with a four year degree only. The party has to stop the bleeding in America’s large metropolitan areas, especially in dynamic, growing suburbs. Keeping and extending GOP support among this demographic, who increasingly see the party as too extreme and out of touch, is key to starting to take back the suburbs.
4. Besides social moderation, one way to reach these and other important demographics is through a judicious use of anti-government populism. Despite general public support for the stimulus package and Obama’s budget, there is considerable disquiet about the effects on these spending measures on the deficit and not much belief, so far, that these measures have had a substantial, positive effect on the economy. In addition, public support for the bailouts of banks and insurers has always been very shaky, with Americans convinced that these firms have gotten too much money and been treated too leniently. So, there is an opening for a populist attack that argues all this—including the impending health and energy bills–is too much money for too little payoff and represents the priorities of elites not the people.
5. This kind of populism is something the party is comfortable with. But here’s something they’re uncomfortable with. It’s not enough to just denounce the other side and what they have done/propose to do in populist terms. The party has to have serious solutions of its own to propose that go beyond cutting taxes to using government to address problems, but in ways that reflect conservative values and principles. It is necessary to go beyond being the Dr. No party. That might help the party make some gains in 2010 but it will not be enough to get it back to a majority status. For that, a conservatism must be built that is not allergic to government spending when needed and even to taxes when there is no responsible alternative. Paradoxically, the party must combine an anti-government populism with a pro-government conservatism.
This sounds and is different from what the party has done in the past. But there is no alternative moving forward. The country has changed and the old playbook just won’t work.