One of the recurrent themes of Election Night 2012 was one of demographics. In short, President Obama's strong performance with African-American and Hispanic voters across the country more than offset Mitt Romney's performance with white voters, thus handing the president a second term in the White House despite doing markedly worse with said white voters in 2012 than he had done in 2008.
Even before that historic re-election victory, gallons of ink had been spilled exploring the shifting demographic winds among the American electorate, and why, on the surface, a rising Democratic tide, driven by those shifts in the voting pool, seemed likely.
As we now launch into the midterm election year of 2014, a couple of key races would appear, on the surface, to hinge on those core Democratic voting blocs and their growth. Both Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, and Georgia Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn, face contests that have to be considered plausible wins, though neither would be favored to win.
These are, after all, red states at the presidential level. But these are also states that have large numbers of nonwhite voters that could make the difference in November of 2014.
But will they? A look inside the numbers below the fold reveals both the promise, and the peril, for both candidates as they look ahead eleven months.
CASE STUDY #1—GEORGIA: CAN A DEMOCRAT WIN IN THE PEACH STATE?
Georgia is one of a handful of states that drew dramatically closer between 2004 and 2008 on the presidential level. Whereas John Kerry lost the state and barely cracked the 40 percent threshold, Barack Obama lost the fast-growing state by a mere 52-47 margin.
The catalyst for that tightening margin was, quite simply, an explosion in African-American turnout. The state has three urban majority-minority districts, all centered in the Atlanta metro area (the 4th, 5th, and 13th districts). Between 2004 and 2008, that trio of heavily black, heavily Democratic districts saw a marked increase in their turnout, a spike that in raw numbers was almost 15 percent greater than the statewide average. The turnout spike not only moved Barack Obama within striking range of seizing the state's electoral votes, but it also propelled Jim Martin, outspent by a greater than 2-to-1 ratio, into a runoff against incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss (more on this race later).
On paper, this would seem to give Democrats a pretty solid reason to be optimistic about their future prospects in Georgia. After all, Democrats had won there statewide in the past, with Roy Barnes seizing the governorship in a competitive election in 1998, and Max Cleland winning a Senate seat in a tight race in 1996 (both, as it happened, faced the same challenger: wealthy self-funder Guy Millner). Both of those elections occurred in far whiter electorates than were developing in the Obama era.
When Cleland won a Senate seat in the presidential year of 1996, he won 37 percent of the white vote, and cleaned house among nonwhite voters (which made up 26 percent of the electorate in that year).
The exit poll consortium inexplicably kept Georgia off of both their 2010 and 2012 lists of states to poll (but included Kansas ... go figure). But if we go back to 2008, we see that the electorate there was 32 percent nonwhite.
Given this data, shouldn't Michelle Nunn (and, also, likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter) be enthused about their prospects for victory?
Forgive the indecisive answer, but the Magic 8 Ball on this one is pretty inconclusive.
Yes, demographically, the composition of the state is better suited for Democratic candidates now than they were back when Cleland and Barnes scored their statewide wins.
Having said that, however, there are three reasons why Democrats have to temper their optimism. Challenges exist, particularly in a midterm electorate, that make for a greater challenge for these two Democratic candidates.
Challenge number one is the fact that the behavior of white voters in Georgia seems to have changed markedly. Though Cleland and Martin were only three percent apart in their overall performances in the state, Martin in 2008 did eleven points worse with white voters. Martin, even as he got 46 percent statewide, polled at just 26 percent of the white vote. What kept him from getting smashed, as it happened, was the change in the demographic composition of the state.
In that sense, even though Georgia is more "new South" than "deep South," over the last 15 years it has started to show real signs of being a "deep South" state in terms of its racially divided voting habits. It's not as absurdly stratified as ... say ... Mississippi, but the gap is large, and widening.
One thing playing in the Democrat's favor here: both of their statewide major candidates (assuming both win their respective primaries) are famous names in the state, which might soften this impact on white voters.
Challenge number two is the most commonly cited concern with relying on nonwhite voters, which is their tendency to fade into the woodwork in non-presidential elections. Here, the Chambliss-Martin election is an instructive one. On Election Night 2008, Martin forced Chambliss into a runoff. Georgia is the rare state that mandates a runoff if no candidate earns a majority of the statewide vote, and Chambliss topped out just shy of 50 percent of the vote.
But when the runoff was held four weeks later, Chambliss won in a landslide. After leading Martin on Election Night by just 110,000 votes out of nearly four million cast, Chambliss won the runoff with ease, scoring 57 percent of the vote and a victory margin of more than 300,000 votes. What had changed? Well, as the Almanac of American Politics noted at the time:
This [runoff] was a battle of turnout, and the signs for Democrats were ominous. While 35 percent of early voters before the November election were black, only 23 percent of early voters for the December runoff were. Overall, turnoff in the runoff was only 57 percent of that for the general election, and all indications were that the drop-off was greater than average among African-Americans, left-leaning students, and other Democratic constituencies.This isn't just a Georgia problem, of course. This is a national problem for Democrats, and one that is highlighted by the fact that it could be argued that the Democrats have only had one "good" midterm election year in the past two decades: 2006. This is a tricky, but essential, electoral dilemma for the Democrats to solve if they want to thrive in 2014.
Challenge number three is an impact that is, admittedly, unknowable at this point. But Democratic strategists have to be more than a tad wary as they ponder this question: is the surge in African-American voting patterns a transient event that only has utility as long as Barack Obama is on the ballot? That surge has solidified some states at the presidential level, and moved others from wholly noncompetitive pre-Obama to purple state status today. But will it continue onward beyond his presidency?
There is a small point of evidence, in Georgia, that there could be a cause for concern. In 2012, the two districts that saw the biggest dropoff in voter turnout were the majority-black 4th and 5th districts, both of which saw turnout that was more than three percent lower than it had been in 2008. Only one other district (the uber-conservative 14th district, which might have had some distaste for Mitt Romney) was even close in shedding as many voters.
On this case, though, the GOP's virulent obsession with fighting all things Obama might be an ironic savior for the Democrats as it might harden resolve among African-American voters to stay in the process, not just to support Obama, but to fight those that have become vicious political enemies of a president that still has near universal support in the African-American community.
CASE STUDY #2—TEXAS: CAN THE LATINO VOTE TURN TEXAS PURPLE?
Meanwhile, several hundred miles to the West, the demographic story is of an entirely different voting bloc. In Texas, there has been a steady and pronounced rise of the Latino population. In 1990, about a quarter of the population was labeled as Hispanic or Latino. By 2010, that figure was close to two-fifths of the population.
Latinos, once thought to be a swing (though probably Democratic-leaning) constituency, have become a reliably Democratic swath of the electorate. In 2012 on a national level, Latino voters went 71-27 for Barack Obama.
Those two statistics, in concert with each other, would appear to be a reason for immense optimism for Texas Democrats. Indeed, it might well be so: most discussion about the political competitiveness of Texas center on when, rather than if, the state will inch toward partisan parity.
Here, as in Georgia, however, there are some data points which should temper that optimism.
For one thing, the population of Texas is changing rapidly, but the change in the electorate is coming at a much, much slower clip. Compare the exit polling data in the Lone Star State between 1996 and 2008. We will use these for comparison because, as in Georgia, Texas was left out of the rotation in 2012, an idiotic decision that I managed to rant and rave about at the time.
In 1996, Latinos made up 16 percent of the electorate. In 2008, they made up 20 percent of the electorate. An increase, but not one that kept pace with the boom in Latino population. The Latino share of the electorate crept forward a net of four percent, whereas the population increase came in at greater than 13 percent.
For another, if electoral dropoff is a problem in the African-American community in non-presidential years, it is practically a crisis in Latino voting areas. That turnout dilemma gave rise to what was arguably the biggest electoral upset of 2010.
In what was then the reliably Democratic 27th district (a 73 percent Latino district in South Texas), lightly regarded Republican Blake Farenthold seized a seat that had been held for fourteen terms by Democrat Solomon Ortiz. It was one of several "holy shit" electoral outcomes on what was, of course, an awful night for Democratic candidates.
Fueling the upset was sparse turnout in a district that already had mediocre participation to begin with. Only 106,000 voters participated on Election Night 2010, barely more than half of the electorate that had shown up in the 27th district on Election Night 2008, when almost 181,000 voters showed up at the polls.
A statewide candidate with a chance to be competitive, like Wendy Davis, is going to need little erosion in turnout. But there is scant historical evidence that she can count on that. This is one of the things that has hamstrung Democrats in Texas, where one has to go back nearly 20 years to locate a Democrat elected to either a Senate seat or the governorship.
Therefore, Davis is either going to need a demographic turnout boost for which there is no recent precedent, or she is going to need to do far better with Anglo voters than other Democrats have as of late. The latter is certainly a possibility—she won election in a large district (Texas state Senate districts are enormous—bigger than their Congressional districts) that was swing territory, if not a slight shade of red.
In Texas, the remedies appear to be time and concerted voter registration efforts. It is more than plausible that those two items will move Texas into competitive territory. But will it take years, rather than months? Likely so.
However, both Davis in Texas and Carter/Nunn in Georgia do have something going for them besides demographic shifts that might be pulling their states, inexorably if slowly, in their direction. They are facing opponents that could put any rational voter, white, black, Latino, or Inuit, into a pure face-palm moment. For those who do not know what is being referenced here, meet Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia Senate candidate Jack Kingston.
(Psst ... he's considered the moderate, electable one.)
And, even though I doubt he wins the GOP nomination, no discussion of the Texas gubernatorial election is complete without mentioning this dude.
So, ultimately, even if demographics alone are highly unlikely to be the salvation for these Democratic candidates, there is always the persistent (and not unreasonable) hope that the Republicans will continue to be the salvation for aspiring Democratic candidates. Just ask Sen. Claire McCaskill. And Sen. Joe Donnelly. And Sen. Chris Coons. And Sen. Michael ...
Well, you get the point.