But the biggest gains have been recorded among two groups that favor Democrats. With women now earning about three-fifths of college degrees, college-educated white women have increased their share of the vote from 11 percent in 1984 to 17 percent in 2008. (These upscale, Democratic-leaning women could conceivably cast more votes than blue-collar men this year.) Minorities have grown even faster, rising from 12 percent of the electorate in 1984 to 23 percent in 2004 and 26 percent in 2008. Recent analyses of census data show that minorities make up 29 percent of 2012’s eligible voters (although it’s unclear whether that population growth will produce comparable gains in the electorate.) And with that burgeoning population, Republicans now see very few openings.
This year, the key question about minorities is not how they will vote but how many will vote. Either a depressed minority turnout or a huge outpouring among conservative whites could stall the steady growth in the minority vote share since the 1980s. But their loyalties don’t seem much in doubt. In 2008, Obama captured a combined four-fifths of all nonwhite voters, winning not only 95 percent of African-Americans but also 67 percent of Hispanics, 62 percent of Asian-Americans, and 66 percent of all others. Although exit polls showed the Democratic share among all minorities slipping to 73 percent in the 2010 House elections, almost all surveys this year show Obama nearing, or even exceeding, his overwhelming advantage among those voters from 2008.
African-Americans show no cracks in their Democratic preference. From 1980 through 2000, GOP nominees performed somewhat better among black men than women, but that gap narrowed in 2004 and essentially vanished by 2008. Likewise, through 1996, Republicans usually ran somewhat better among African-Americans with college degrees than those without them, but that gap has also disappeared. Among blacks, the modest marriage gap evident in earlier years has also closed.
Regular churchgoers vote overwhelmingly for Republicans.
Hispanics have shown more cracks. Overall, Democrats have carried these voters in every race since 1980, capturing at least three-fifths of their vote in six of the eight contests. George W. Bush, who made a major play for Hispanic support, reached 43 percent in 2004 (although some Latino analysts continue to dispute that exit-poll finding), but after the GOP rejected comprehensive immigration reform in Bush’s second term, McCain fell back to just 31 percent support.
Republicans have run more strongly among Hispanic men than women in each of these eight elections except 1992, although the difference usually has been modest. The class pattern in Hispanic preferences isn’t as consistent. In 1988, 1996, and 2000, Republicans ran better among college-educated than noncollege Latinos (re-creating the pattern evident among whites from the 1940s through the 1980s). But that gap narrowed in 2004 and reversed in 2008, with Obama running more strongly among college-educated than noncollege-educated Hispanics.
Religion eclipses these other differences. The Democratic nominee ran at least 9 percentage points better among Hispanic Catholics than Hispanic Protestants in each election from 1980 through 2004 except 1984. The Democratic advantage among Hispanic Catholics (who represent about three-fifths of all Hispanics, according to the Pew Hispanic Center) is overwhelming: The Democratic nominee has averaged about 70 percent of their votes since 1996, and even George W. Bush never attracted more than about one-third of Latino Catholics.
Bush made his greatest gains among Hispanic Protestants, winning just under half of their votes in 2000 and a 54 percent majority in 2004. Protestants make up about one-fifth of all Hispanics, and evangelicals, preponderantly socially conservative, represent about two-thirds of that group. The exit poll did not include enough members of this group to provide precise figures on their behavior in 2008, but they remained more Republican than Hispanic Catholics.
Amid widespread economic discontent, exit polls showed Republicans increasing their share of the Latino vote to 38 percent in the 2010 House races, even though Democrats maintained larger advantages in several key Senate races. But Romney wielded unwaveringly conservative positions on immigration to cudgel his rivals during the GOP primaries, and surveys since then give Obama a plausible chance of exceeding his 67 percent among Hispanics from 2008. (The latest Univision polling shows Obama attracting three-fourths of Hispanic Catholics and almost three-fifths of Hispanic Protestants.) That’s a remarkable prospect, given Latinos’ economic distress. Republicans appear paralyzed between their intellectual recognition that their party must improve its appeal among the rapidly growing Hispanic population and the political constraints imposed by their reliance on blue-collar and older-whites, groups that polls show are the most uneasy about the demographic change remaking the country. (See “Separate but Equal,” NJ, 6/4/11, p. 17.)