A Demographic Breakthrough for Democrats

William H. Frey and Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira Nonresident Senior Fellow - American Enterprise Institute, Former Brookings Expert

November 7, 2008

Barack Obama’s victory on Tuesday night was a truly historic event, coming 43 years after Congress enacted a Voting Rights Act to end the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Yet Obama’s election also represents a breakthrough election for the Democratic Party by extending the party’s appeal to new growth regions and by growing demographic segments that eluded the party’s grasp in the last two presidential elections.

In both 2000 and 2004, the Democrats were stuck in a demographic rut, clinging mostly to the industrial Midwest, the Northeast and the Pacific Coast. With population migrating out of these states, these areas lost 14 Electoral College seats from the reapportionments of the last two Censuses. Al Gore and John Kerry lost voters in the suburbs, most voters over age 30, middle-income voters and those with college degrees. And in 2004, Kerry seemed to lose the Democrats’ firm grip on the fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc.

Democrats in 2000 and 2004 were able to capture large coastal states, Midwest cities, union workers, some very young voters and blacks. But they were not keeping pace with Republican gains in Florida, the rest of the “New South” and the burgeoning Intermountain West. The Democrats looked to be standing still as the country was changing rapidly. Their strategy for winning in 2004 boiled down to taking the stagnant battleground state of Ohio, which John Kerry wound up losing.

Enter Barack Obama and 2008. To be sure, he had the wind at his back by running against a Republican record of stark economic downturns and a prolonged war. But he also connected the party to potent demographic trends, leading to Democratic success in the electorate’s growth sectors. On Tuesday, he took a slew of “fast-growing battlegrounds,”—Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina—complemented by the slow growing ones of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and, this time, adding Ohio.

Unlike his two Democratic predecessors, Obama won the suburbs by a margin of 50-48 (compared with their losing margins of 5 and 2 points respectively in 2000 and 2004). And Obama did far better than Gore and Kerry among adults under age 45, college grads and persons with some college. He won the fast-growing Hispanic population by a 36 point margin (67-31) double Kerry’s margin of 18 points, as well as the black and Asian voter groups by significantly higher margins. And while whites, overall, still favored Republicans, GOP margins shrunk substantially from 2004 for white men (down to 16 point from 25) as well as white women (down to 7 points from 11). Some part of this decline in GOP margins can be attributed to the voting proclivities of new, younger whites (Obama actually carried whites 18-29 by 10 points, the only age group among whites he carried) and white college grads, who continued their long term political migration toward the Democratic Party.

This Democratic demographic breakout owes much to shifts occurring in metropolitan areas— both cities and their suburbs. Long bastions of Democratic support, America’s cities gave even a larger margin to Obama than to his predecessors. But the fact that the suburbs also went Obama’s way underscores the role of metro areas as anchors to the new Democratic surge.

America’s growing metro identity is especially potent within fast-growing battleground states. For instance, metro Denver is driving political change in Colorado, metro Tampa and Orlando are doing the same in Florida and the northern Virginia suburbs of metro DC are the key transformative agent in Virginia’s politics. Both the cities and suburbs of metro areas are targets for new migration into fast-growing states, driven especially by young people, white college graduates and minorities – all groups with whom Obama scored big gains on Tuesday.

Cities and suburbs also played important roles in slow-growing battleground states – such as metro Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, metro Columbus in Ohio, and metro Detroit in Michigan. Here, new generations of voters, again driven by the mix of young people, white college graduates and minorities, are finding the Democratic message more palatable.

Indeed, much of Obama’s very strong victory is rooted in these cutting edge demographic trends, which Democrats are now turning to their advantage. Immigrants, minorities, young people, college graduates and metro residents, both in cities and suburbs, are all part of the mix, helping to expand Democratic support in America’s rising areas.

But now that the election has been won, work needs to begin on crucial issues these groups care about—affordable housing, good schools, health care, transportation and, for new Americans, the pathways toward achieving upward mobility and the American Dream. It’s a tall order indeed, but if the Democrats can fill that order, the stage is set to make them the rising party of the early 21st century.

Supporting Materials
Democratic Presidential Vote Margins: 2008, 2004, 2000 »