Published November 10, 2012
Washington – It's not just the economy, stupid. It's the demographics — the changing face of America.
The 2012 elections drove home trends that have been embedded in the fine print of birth and death rates, immigration statistics and census charts for years.
America is rapidly getting more diverse, and, more gradually, so is its electorate.
Nonwhites made up 28 percent of the electorate this year, compared with 20 percent in 2000. Much of that growth is coming from Hispanics.
The trend has worked to the advantage of President Barack Obama two elections in a row now and is not lost on Republicans poring over the details of Tuesday's results.
Obama captured a commanding 80 percent of the growing ranks of nonwhite voters in 2012, just as he did in 2008.
Republican Mitt Romney couldn't win even though he dominated among white men and outperformed 2008 nominee John McCain with that group. It's an ever-shrinking slice of the electorate and of America writ large.
White men made up 34 percent of the electorate this year, down from 46 percent in 1972.
"The new electorate is a lagging indicator of the next America," says Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center. "We are midpassage in a century-long journey from the middle of the last century, when we were nearly a 90 percent white nation, to the middle of this coming century, when we will be a majority minority nation."
Another trend that will be shaping the future electorate is the stronger influence of single women. They vote differently from men and from women who are married. Fifty-four percent of single women call themselves Democrats; 36 percent of married women do.
With women marrying later and divorcing more, single women made up 23 percent of voters in the 2012 election, compared with 19 percent in 2000.
The changing electorate has huge implications for public policy and politics.
Suddenly, immigration overhaul seems a lot more important, for one thing.
Ask white voters about the proper role of government, for another, and 60 percent think it should do less. Ask Hispanics the same question, and 58 percent think the government should do more, as do 73 percent of blacks, exit polls show.
You can hear it in the voice of Alicia Pérez, a 31-year-old immigration attorney who voted last week at a preschool in Ysleta, Texas.
"I trust the government to take care of us," she said. "I don't trust the Republican Party to take care of people."
Sure, the election's biggest issue, the economy, affects everyone. But the voters deciding who should tackle it were quite different from the makeup of the 1992 "It's the economy, stupid" race that elected Democrat Bill Clinton as president.
Look no further than the battleground states of Campaign 2012 for political ramifications flowing from the country's changing demographics.
New Western states have emerged as the Hispanic population there grows. In Nevada, for example, white voters made up 80 percent of the electorate in 2000; now they're at 64 percent. The share of Hispanics in the state electorate has grown to 19 percent; Obama won 70 percent of their votes.
Obama won most of the battlegrounds with a message that was more in sync than Romney's with minorities, women and younger voters, and by carefully targeting his grassroots mobilizing efforts to reach those groups.
In North Carolina, where Romney narrowly defeated Obama, 42 percent of black voters said they had been contacted on behalf of Obama, compared with just 26 percent of whites, exit polls showed. Obama got just 31 percent of the state's white vote, but managed to keep it competitive by claiming 96 percent of black voters and 68 percent of Hispanics.
Young voters in the state, two-thirds of whom backed Obama, also were more often the target of Obama's campaign than Romney's: 35 percent said they were contacted by Obama, 11 percent by Romney. Among senior citizens, two-thirds of whom voted Republican, 33 percent were contacted by Obama, 34 percent by Romney.
Howard University sociologist Roderick Harrison, former chief of racial statistics at the Census Bureau, said Obama's campaign strategists proved themselves to be "excellent demographers."
"They have put together a coalition of populations that will eventually become the majority or are marching toward majority status in the population, and populations without whom it will be very difficult to win national elections and some statewide elections, particularly in states with large black and Hispanic populations," Harrison said.
One way to see the trend is to look at the diversity of young voters. Among voters under 30 years old this year, only 58 percent are white. Among senior voters, 87 percent are white.
Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey says policymakers and politicians need to prepare for a growing "cultural generation gap."
"Both parties are getting the message that this is a new age and a new America," says Frey. "Finally, the politics is catching up with the demography."
Just as Republicans need to do a better job of attracting Hispanics, says Frey, Democrats need to do more to reach out to whites.
The face of Congress is changing more slowly than the electorate or the population, but changing it is.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California was happy to highlight the news that for the first time in history, more than half the members of her caucus next year will be women, black, Hispanic or Asian. She said it "reflects the great diversity and strength of our nation."
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, whose caucus is far more white and male, said Republicans need to learn to "speak to all Americans — you know, not just to people who look like us and act like us."
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, one of the GOP's most prominent black women, said the party needs to understand that "the changing demographics in the country really necessitate an even bigger tent for the Republican Party."
"Clearly we are losing important segments of that electorate and what we have to do is to appeal to those people not as identity groups but understanding that if you can get the identity issue out of the way, then you can appeal on the broader issues that all Americans share a concern for," she said.
All sides know the demographic trends are sure to become more pronounced in the future.
In the past year, minority babies outnumbered white newborns for the first time in U.S. history. By midcentury, Hispanics, blacks, Asians and multiracial people combined will become the majority of the U.S.
Since 2000, the Hispanic and Asian populations have grown by more than 40 percent, fueled by increased immigration of younger people as well as more births.
Currently, Hispanics are the largest minority group and make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, compared with 12 percent for blacks and 5 percent for Asians. Together minorities now make up more than 36 percent of the population.
Hispanics will make up roughly 30 percent of the U.S. by midcentury, while the African-American share is expected to remain unchanged at 12 percent. Asian-Americans will grow to roughly 8 percent of the U.S.
"The minorities will vote," said demographer Frey. "The question is will their vote be split more across the two parties than it was this time?"
For both Republicans and Democrats, he said, the 2012 election is a wake-up call that will echo through the decades.