When President Obama’s team goes looking for votes this year, they will find a rapidly changing Sun Belt region that is providing Democrats inroads into previously Republican-held territory. Minorities are the principal engine of growth in many of the country’s fastest-growing counties, which is allowing Democrats to contest suburban areas that had long been out of their reach.
A review of census data and past election results shows that Obama’s 2008 campaign had already established beachheads in some of the nation's fastest-growing counties. Typically, those counties are small exurban and suburban areas experiencing rapid development. But the list of fast-growing places now also includes some urban cores, particularly in the Sun Belt, such as Tampa and Austin. Obama enjoyed particular success in those areas, some of which may be critical to his hopes again in 2012.
In 2008, Obama won 32 of the 100 counties that the Census Bureau identified as the fastest-growing from 2010 to 2011. That’s a marked change from 2004, when Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee, won just three of the top 100 fastest-growing counties and President Bush took the remaining 97. And four years ago, Obama actually won 200,000 more votes in those 100 counties than Sen. John McCain did—Obama won a little over 3.9 million votes, while the Republican from Arizona took about 3.7 million in those 100 counties.
The fastest-growing counties in 2004 were fueled largely by white Americans moving from urban centers to the suburbs and exurbs, which largely explained Bush’s dominance then. But Hispanics and other minorities are now driving much of the increase in the fastest-growing places. Obama won 12 of the 15 fast-growing counties with the highest percentage of minority residents, and he won all but one of the eight fastest-growing counties in which whites are a minority of the population.
There is also a significant racial difference in counties in which Obama performed better than Democratic nominees in previous election cycles. In counties where Obama exceeded the average Democratic performance from 1976 to 1992 by at least 10 percentage points, white residents comprised an average of just 59 percent of the population. In counties in which Obama’s share of the vote trailed the previous Democratic averages by 10 points or more, whites comprised an average of 76 percent of the population.