Axelrod rejects the notion that Obama is destined to receive less support among whites or more support among minorities. “This is a dynamic environment,” he says. “We are going to compete for all voters. It is a little too glib to make an assumption that 100 percent is going one way or another for each race or ethnicity.”
But Axelrod acknowledges the obvious: For the Obama campaign, the shifting demography can be a crucial factor in “states that are close” if Democrats can convert it to increased voter participation. Other operatives in Obama’s orbit privately acknowledge that blue-collar voters’ enduring difficulties with the president could make it tougher for him to hold older, preponderantly white states such as Indiana, Ohio, and even Wisconsin. The uphill climb in those states will increase the pressure on Obama to capture such growing, diverse states as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia. Of the two behemoth swing states in American politics, some key figures in the Obama camp now view capturing Florida as a distinctly better bet than winning Ohio.
Meanwhile, just as important as the deepening diversification of Florida and other minority-rich states are the expanding minority beachheads in states that haven’t previously experienced much diversity. Hispanics, in particular, are influencing a lengthening list of electoral battlegrounds, including many places where neither party has thought much about how to persuade or mobilize them.
Hispanics now represent about one in 12 voters in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, three states whose politics have traditionally revolved around a binary black-white competition. (In picking Charlotte, for their 2012 national convention, Democrats are hoping to influence not only North Carolina but its neighboring states as well.)
Even in Iowa, a closely fought swing state in recent elections, the Hispanic population bumped from 2.8 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2010. That will be a thumb on the scale for Democrats unless Republicans can improve their performance with those voters. “In a state like Iowa, which is already competitive, it makes it even more competitive, and it makes it more nuanced,” DuHaime says. “It’s not as simple as it once was.”
Indeed, the evolving demography will change the electoral calculus, at least somewhat, in the vast majority of states. To assess the potential impact of the demographic change on the 2012 electoral map, National Journal recently performed a series of projections. First, we looked at the average annual increase in the state-by-state minority share of the voting-age population from 2000 through 2010 and projected that forward two years to produce an estimate of each state’s total nonwhite population in the 2012 election year. Then we estimated how that population increase would affect the minority share of the vote in each state, using the relationship between the two variables in 2008 as a guide. (We assumed that for each state, the minority share of the vote in 2012 would equal the same proportion of the total minority population as it did in 2008.)
Once we established an estimated minority share of the vote for each state in 2012, we ran two simulations. One projected that Obama would win the same share of minority voters in each state that he did in 2008; the other assumed that he would lose 10 percent of his previous minority share. (That scenario approximates the falloff between the 80 percent of minorities that Obama won in 2008, and the 73 percent that Democrats captured in 2010, according to the exit polls.) In each case, we then calculated the share of the white vote that Obama would need to win each state.
The exercise shows that, compared with 2008, the road would bend toward Obama, at least slightly, just about everywhere. Most important would be the changes in the states atop each side’s priority list for 2012.
Obama, for instance, won Florida last time with 42 percent of the white vote; under this scenario, if he maintains his minority support he could win the Sunshine State with just under 40 percent of the white vote. With equal minority support in Nevada, the president could win with only 35 percent of the white vote, down from the 45 percent he garnered in 2008. Likewise, under these conditions, Obama could take Virginia with just 33.5 percent of whites, well down from the 39 percent he captured last time. In New Jersey, his winning number among whites would fall to just over 41 percent (compared with the 52 percent he won in 2008). In Pennsylvania, under these circumstances, 41 percent of white votes would be enough to put the state in Obama’s column, down from the 48 percent he won in 2008.
Several senior Democratic strategists believe that the demographic trends may allow them to expand their target list in 2012. Top analysts on Obama’s team are intrigued by Georgia (where the minority share of the adult population has spiked to 41 percent) and Arizona (where it has nearly hit 37 percent).