USA 2012: All about demographics

The big story of last week’s US presidential election was the impact of demographic change on election results. While Mitt Romney won a large majority of the white vote, it wasn’t enough to win an election in a modern America with a rapidly growing ‘minority’ demographic (mainly consisting of Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans).

The Republicans also suffered badly amongst women and young people, in particularly losing Senate seats due to offensive comments by Senate candidates exposing the extreme position of the party on social issues like abortion.

In 2012, Mitt Romney won a majority of votes cast by white people. In previous decades, his win with white voters would have been enough to win the election. However the Obama campaign and the Democrats have taken advantage of massive growth in the non-white population, and last Tuesday Obama won the vast majority of votes in the African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American communities. Combined with a solid victory amongst women, this allowed Obama to win the election despite losing white voters (particularly white men).

Over the last twenty years, the proportion of the US population that is not white has been steadily growing, and growing fast. This has been caused primarily by growth in the Hispanic and Asian-American population. While there has been less growth in the African-American population, Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 and 2012 has produced record-high levels of turnout amongst a community that is usually difficult to mobilise.

Non-white voters made up 28 percent of the electorate in 2012, compared to 20 percent in 2000. White men now make up only 34 percent of the electorate, down from 46 percent in 1972. Birth rates suggest this trend still has a long way to go – and this demographic change is likely to have a big impact on US politics.

While Obama easily dominated the non-white vote, he also performed more strongly amongst younger Americans (regardless of race) and amongst women – easily overcoming Romney’s strengths among older white men.

The Democrats campaigned on abortion and women’s rights in a way never seen before in the United States. The relentless focus of some Democratic candidates on their opponents’ severe pro-life stances led to more questioning of those candidates on these issues than has been typical, and led to numerous ‘gaffes’ where Republican candidates (particularly for the Senate) made offensive comments about the relationship between rape and pregnancy.

A relentless campaign by the Obama campaign to paint the Republican party and Mitt Romney as anti-woman paid off, with Obama performing very strongly amongst women, and in a number of key swing states and key Senate races, Democrats won the race thanks to the women’s vote, while losing the vote amongst men. This trend was not caused by the Democrats running more women: in Connecticut, Republican candidate Linda McMahon performed poorly amongst women, who favoured her male Democratic opponent. McMahon tied at 49% with her male opponent amongst men, but lost by eleven points amongst women. Gender gaps showed up just as strongly in races between two men.

In the current political environment, this demographic breakdown makes life very hard for Republicans in presidential election years. In 2010, Republicans largely won due to a massive collapse in the number of voters turning out at the polls – conservative white voters were less likely to stay at home for the less important races for Governor, Senate and House.

Yet in presidential election years, as long as the Democrats are able to turn out minorities who strongly favour them, and Republicans pursue policies that turn off so many non-white voters and women, they will struggle to win a national election.

For more information: You can look at the exit polls for the Presidential race and the Senate races at the New York Times website.

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