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Demographic Change Isn’t Political Destiny

A woman completes her ballot at a polling station in Pueblo, Colorado, in 2013.

Predicting the future is risky business. Perhaps that’s why my Center for American Progress colleagues Ruy Teixeira and Rob Griffin, joined by Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey, were so careful not to make any bold prognostications in their recently released report about how demographic trends are likely to affect presidential politics in the coming generations.

Titled “America’s Electoral Future: How Changing Demographics Could Impact Presidential Elections from 2016 to 2032,” the trio of respected researchers stopped well short of predicting the result of the 2016 presidential election in the midst of the ongoing party nomination battles and nearly six months out from November’s general election.

Instead, their work—as part of the States of Change project, a nonpartisan collaboration of the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Brookings Institution—seeks to inform policymakers and voters about how the changing nature of race and age profiles in every state affects the U.S. political process.

Looking back, Teixeira, Griffin, and Frey accurately observe that previous presidential elections have been affected by the increased racial diversity of the voting electorate. At the beginning of the paper, they write, “A solid case can be made that the nation’s racial minority populations put President Barack Obama over the top in both 2008 and 2012.”

On the other hand, the authors note that while the electorate is more racially diverse, another growing part of the voting public is made up of seniors, who are drawn from whiter and more conservative generations than today’s Millennials. In effect, due to the variety of demographic groups in the U.S. electorate, there is no way to draw an easy conclusion about what will happen in November, let alone in the next five or so presidential elections. The past is not prologue to future voting trends.

The conventional wisdom says that black and Latino voters are knee-jerk Democratic voters, whereas older white voters are the exclusive domain of the Republicans. Such notions are fueled by speculative media reports and know-nothing punditry, which are not based on empirical research or substantiated evidence. Correspondingly, however, candidates tend to aggregate voters into blocs and pitch campaign speeches to the groups that are deemed most likely to respond favorably to their messaging.

Yet Teixeira, Griffin, and Frey’s work is fascinating because it looks into the future with scholarly and scientific methods—and without alarmist rhetoric—in order to offer credible scenarios for what could happen in future elections. I’ve mentioned States of Change studies in the past; last year, the same authors presented a series of long-term projections of race and age profiles for the general population as well as eligible voters in all 50 states through the year 2060. Now, they return to these timeline projections to suggest what their previous work might mean for the presidential elections of 2016, 2020, 2024, 2028, and 2032.

Make no mistake: They are not indicating which party will win. Rather, they serve up six scenarios that analyze the myriad possibilities based on age, race, and state voter turnout rates in the future election years.

Building on the previous report’s understanding of demographics, the writers caution against reading too much into their findings. “Notably, these are simulations—not predictions,” they warn. “The goal of this report is to display the potential political effects of demographic change. …[B]ut they are not predictions about actual future events.”

What Teixeira, Griffin, and Frey tell readers is that, looking at the future, clumping people into voting blocs based solely on race or age is, at best, an incomplete strategy and, at worst, a misguided effort to explain the unknowable. They write:

These demographic shifts—toward both a more racially diverse younger electorate and a larger older electorate—certainly should change the playing field in terms of how the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as their candidates, appeal to these shifting voting blocs, which often have different interests. And the pace of demographic change varies across geography, with some fast-growing states such as Arizona, Texas, and Florida seeing the effects of the nation’s rising diversity much more sharply than others. Yet even slow growing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan will experience significant rising diversity in the coming years and, importantly, an aging of their electorates driven by large contingents of Baby Boom residents. These state-level demographic changes will leave strong imprints on the voting populations captured by the all-important Electoral College, forcing parties and candidates to recalibrate their strategies for success.

How the United States chooses its president is among the most watched of world events. If you need proof of the fact that U.S. elections are a global phenomenon, read this and this and this. But what often goes unremarked upon is the fact that millions of voters, as they exercise their agency, make decisions based upon a multitude of factors. Despite the never ending prognostication, political outcomes are yet to be decided by the individual choices of millions of voters acting alone in the privacy of a voting booth. While mindful of the vagaries of human behavior, Teixeira, Griffin, and Frey make a convincing case to political leaders that demographics are not destiny. What a candidate says and does during the long campaign season is what matters most to voters. Or as Teixeira, Griffin, and Frey put it:

While the force of demography is important, election results also depend on economic conditions, candidates, and the extent to which those candidates are able to generate enthusiasm that can be measured in voter turnout and candidate preference.

As the presidential candidates seek support from various groups of voters, they would be wise to craft campaign messages that unify all voters rather than offer a laundry list of false promises to target clumps of whites, blacks, Latinos, or other racial groups. Believe it or not, voters of all persuasions know better—and they will hold the candidates accountable on Election Day.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.