Demography Is Not Destiny for Democrats

Redistricting and GOP dominance among white voters have offset the growing racial diversity that was supposed to give Democrats an unbeatable edge.

A poll worker prepares voting booths at a polling station in Los Angeles on May 21, 2013. Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilman Eric Garcetti are vying to replace Antonio Villaraigosa as the next mayor of Los Angeles. 
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Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 14, 2015, 7:41 a.m.

Grow­ing ra­cial di­versity is trans­form­ing a length­en­ing list of con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts, but not provid­ing as much polit­ic­al be­ne­fit to House Demo­crats as many in both parties ex­pec­ted only a few years ago, a Next Amer­ica ana­lys­is has found.

Dis­tricts high in ra­cial di­versity re­main the last re­doubt for the House Demo­crats’ de­pleted caucus: As Next Amer­ica has re­por­ted, al­most ex­actly two-thirds of the 188 Demo­crat­ic House mem­bers in the new Con­gress rep­res­ent dis­tricts where minor­it­ies ex­ceed their na­tion­al share of the pop­u­la­tion, 37.6 per­cent.

But Demo­crats have clearly failed to squeeze all the pos­sible ad­vant­age from grow­ing di­versity, par­tic­u­larly as Re­pub­lic­ans have con­sol­id­ated their hold over dis­tricts where whites are more plen­ti­ful than they are na­tion­ally. While Demo­crats con­tin­ue to dom­in­ate dis­tricts where minor­it­ies rep­res­ent half or more of res­id­ents, the GOP re­mains dog­gedly com­pet­it­ive in seats where the minor­ity pop­u­la­tion is either slightly above, or slightly be­low, its na­tion­al av­er­age. In fact, in the new Con­gress, Re­pub­lic­ans will hold a ma­jor­ity of the seats in which minor­it­ies rep­res­ent at least 30 per­cent and no more than 50 per­cent of the total pop­u­la­tion.

That trend has dulled the Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age from the steady in­crease in dis­tricts where di­versity has es­tab­lished at least a beach­head. In the 103rd Con­gress from 1993-94, minor­it­ies rep­res­en­ted 30 per­cent or more of the pop­u­la­tion in just 109 House dis­tricts, ac­cord­ing to a pre­vi­ous Na­tion­al Journ­al ana­lys­is of data from the 1990 decen­ni­al census. Today, minor­it­ies rep­res­ent at least 30 per­cent of all res­id­ents in 235 seats, ac­cord­ing to res­ults of the Census Bur­eau’s 2013 Amer­ic­an Com­munity Sur­vey.

In turn, the num­ber of dis­tricts where whites are at least 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion has de­clined from 245 after the 1990 re­dis­trict­ing to 115 now. On a map, those dis­tricts in the 1990s covered al­most all of the north­ern half of the coun­try, with only the ex­cep­tion of Cali­for­nia and some Mid-At­lantic states. Since then, as I’ve writ­ten be­fore, the pre­pon­der­antly white seats have re­treated, al­most like a re­ced­ing gla­ci­er, in­to the coun­try’s north­ern­most third.

But while di­versity has un­deni­ably dif­fused over the past two dec­ades, it has con­cen­trated in­to a de­cis­ive crit­ic­al mass in few­er places. Though minor­it­ies today rep­res­ent at least 30 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in those 235 dis­tricts, that num­ber drops to 159 at a 40 per­cent threshold and 117 at 50 per­cent.

In the new Con­gress, Demo­crats will hold 99 of the 117 seats in which minor­it­ies con­sti­tute a pop­u­la­tion ma­jor­ity. But their per­form­ance is much less im­press­ive in the band of seats just above, and be­low, the na­tion­al av­er­age in di­versity. In the new Con­gress, Re­pub­lic­ans hold a slight 23-19 edge in the dis­tricts where minor­it­ies rep­res­ent above 40 per­cent and not more than 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, and a broad­er 48-28 lead in the seats where minor­it­ies rep­res­ent above 30 per­cent and not more than 40 per­cent of the res­id­ents.

The key to the Demo­crats’ loss of Con­gress, as we re­por­ted here, is their near-total col­lapse in heav­ily white seats, par­tic­u­larly those blue-col­lar places with few­er white col­lege gradu­ates. But in their struggle to re­gain a ma­jor­ity, these mod­estly di­verse dis­tricts rep­res­ent a crit­ic­al tar­get for Demo­crats—as a his­tor­ic­al com­par­is­on makes clear. In the new Con­gress, Demo­crats will hold 146 of the 235 seats where minor­it­ies equal at least three-tenths of the total pop­u­la­tion, or 62 per­cent. That’s down sig­ni­fic­antly from the 84 per­cent they con­trolled of the 109 seats that fit that defin­i­tion in 1993.

Exit polls show that Demo­crats have main­tained a con­sist­ently lop­sided ad­vant­age with minor­ity voters na­tion­wide at both the pres­id­en­tial and con­gres­sion­al level over that peri­od. So why hasn’t the in­crease in the num­ber of dis­tricts with sig­ni­fic­ant minor­ity pop­u­la­tions be­nefited the party more?

Prob­ably the single most im­port­ant an­swer is the wide­spread con­trol of the 2010 re­dis­trict­ing that the GOP earned by win­ning so many state le­gis­lat­ive and gubernat­ori­al elec­tions in that year’s cam­paign.

In earli­er re­dis­trict­ing ef­forts, Re­pub­lic­ans, of­ten with the sup­port of minor­ity Demo­crat­ic politi­cians, fre­quently sought to “pack” minor­ity voters in­to con­cen­trated urb­an dis­tricts that would re­li­ably elect non­white Demo­crats—while sim­ul­tan­eously pro­du­cing mostly white Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing dis­tricts bey­ond the urb­an core.

Tom Boni­er, CEO of the Demo­crat­ic elect­or­al tar­get­ing firm Tar­getS­mart Com­mu­nic­a­tions, says that “more dif­fused set­tle­ment pat­terns by minor­ity voters” in rap­idly di­ver­si­fy­ing states such as Geor­gia and Texas forced Re­pub­lic­ans who con­trolled re­dis­trict­ing to fo­cus in­stead on dif­fus­ing Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing minor­it­ies across a wide range of dis­tricts where they are still out­numbered by con­ser­vat­ive white pop­u­la­tions. In Texas, for in­stance, no few­er than 19 House Re­pub­lic­ans hold dis­tricts where minor­it­ies rep­res­ent between one-third to just un­der half of the pop­u­la­tion. “In or­der for Re­pub­lic­ans to hold back Demo­crats “… in Con­gress,” says Boni­er, “they had to draw dis­tricts that are di­verse enough, but don’t get to that crit­ic­al mass where Demo­crats can win.”

The im­pact of re­dis­trict­ing be­comes power­fully clear when com­par­ing the out­comes from di­verse dis­tricts in states where Re­pub­lic­ans con­trolled re­dis­trict­ing after 2010 with those where they did not. The GOP had com­plete con­trol of the line-draw­ing in Texas, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, North Car­o­lina, Vir­gin­ia, Louisi­ana, South Car­o­lina, Alabama, and Ok­lahoma: In the new Con­gress, Re­pub­lic­ans will con­trol 60 of the 94 seats in those states where minor­it­ies equal at least 30 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

By con­trast, in Cali­for­nia, New York, Illinois, Mary­land, New Jer­sey, Ari­zona, Mis­sis­sippi, Nevada, Col­or­ado, Con­necti­c­ut, and New Mex­ico—states where either Demo­crats, a di­vided state gov­ern­ment, or a neut­ral pro­cess drew the lines—Demo­crats will con­trol 87 of the 112 seats where minor­it­ies cross that pop­u­la­tion threshold.

As Boni­er notes, the GOP strategy of dis­pers­ing sub­stan­tial minor­ity pop­u­la­tions only works if “the white vote “… re­mains over­whelm­ingly Re­pub­lic­an.” That points to the second factor that has al­lowed House Re­pub­lic­ans to man­age the grow­ing wave of di­versity: the GOP’s in­creas­ing dom­in­ance among white voters.

In the three elec­tions since 2010, Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates have amassed their highest level of white sup­port in the his­tory of polling, in each case at­tract­ing about three-fifths of those voters. The mar­gins have been es­pe­cially lop­sided in sev­er­al of the Sun Belt states where di­versity is grow­ing fast­est: While state-level House res­ults are not avail­able, exit polls in both Texas and Geor­gia, for in­stance, found that last year’s Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ates at­trac­ted few­er than one in four white voters.

Those big ad­vant­ages among whites have powered the GOP to a crush­ing lead in pre­pon­der­antly white dis­tricts: While Demo­crats as re­cently as 2009 held nearly half of seats where whites equaled at least 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans now con­trol 97 of those seats, com­pared with just 18 for Demo­crats. At the same time, par­tic­u­larly in the South, Re­pub­lic­an mar­gins among whites have reached heights tower­ing enough to with­stand, of­ten eas­ily, a rising tide of Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing minor­ity voters in the di­ver­si­fy­ing places. “They can win those dis­tricts be­cause they are ra­cially po­lar­ized in their vot­ing pat­terns,” says Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (San Diego) polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Gary C. Jac­ob­son, an ex­pert on Con­gres­sion­al elec­tions.

Ex­amin­ing the pic­ture from an­oth­er angle points to­ward a sim­il­ar con­clu­sion about the im­port­ance of both re­dis­trict­ing and the Demo­crat­ic struggles among whites. Of the 71 Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent­ing dis­tricts in which minor­it­ies com­prise at least per­cent 30 and not more than 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, just 17 are in seats that can be con­sidered even par­tially com­pet­it­ive, based on con­gres­sion­al and pres­id­en­tial vot­ing pat­terns. Even among the 18 ad­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans who rep­res­ent dis­tricts where minor­it­ies con­sti­tute a pop­u­la­tion ma­jor­ity, only eight hold what might be con­sidered truly swing seats. (None of the four Texas House Re­pub­lic­ans who rep­res­ent ma­jor­ity-minor­ity seats, for in­stance, hold truly com­pet­it­ive seats.)

Even so, that still means Re­pub­lic­ans today con­trol about two dozen heav­ily minor­ity seats whose un­der­ly­ing par­tis­an bal­ance leaves them with­in reach for both parties. Texas-based Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant James Aldrete, an ex­pert on His­pan­ic voters, says turnout is a key part of the party’s prob­lem in those dis­tricts, par­tic­u­larly among minor­ity voters now mi­grat­ing away from their tra­di­tion­al pop­u­la­tion cen­ters. “You have lower com­munity ties in the emer­ging pop­u­la­tions, you have a re­l­at­ively youth­ful pop­u­la­tion, and you have low edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment levels,” he says. “That com­bin­a­tion means there really needs to be heavy grass­roots in­fra­struc­ture that is con­sist­ent, that is just not turn­ing out [on Elec­tion Day], but cre­at­ing com­munity bonds.”

But turnout and re­dis­trict­ing isn’t the en­tire story. Al­most all House Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent­ing heav­ily minor­ity but safely GOP-lean­ing dis­tricts have amassed un­waver­ingly con­ser­vat­ive re­cords; that list in­cludes some of the party’s most mil­it­ant voices on im­mig­ra­tion, such as Texas’s Lamar Smith and Louie Gohmert. But many of the House Re­pub­lic­ans in di­verse, com­pet­it­ive seats—such as Mike Coff­man in Col­or­ado, Jeff Den­ham and Dav­id Valadao in Cali­for­nia, and Joe Heck in Nevada, and Cuban-Amer­ic­an le­gis­lat­ors such as Car­los Cur­belo and Mario Diaz-Bal­art in Flor­ida—have ag­gress­ively cour­ted their large minor­ity pop­u­la­tions by sup­port­ing leg­al status for at least some un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. In some places, Re­pub­lic­ans have also made in­roads for core con­ser­vat­ive ideas among minor­ity voters; last Novem­ber’s exit poll in Texas, for in­stance, showed Re­pub­lic­an gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee Greg Ab­bott car­ry­ing fully 44 per­cent of His­pan­ics (al­though oth­er poll­sters main­tain that over­stated his strength). “It’s just a fact of life that in Texas, many His­pan­ics and middle-class Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans are con­ser­vat­ive,” says long­time GOP con­sult­ant Dav­id Car­ney, Ab­bott’s chief strategist. “It isn’t like the Re­pub­lic­ans have done any­thing tricky or Ma­chiavel­lian or really cool and soph­ist­ic­ated. They just are con­ser­vat­ive.”

Still, Demo­crat­ic strategists re­main cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic that con­tin­ued minor­ity pop­u­la­tion growth will tip more of these di­verse dis­tricts back in­to their hands over time—par­tic­u­larly if the GOP con­tin­ues its right­ward tilt on is­sues of par­tic­u­lar rel­ev­ance to non­white voters, such as im­mig­ra­tion and health re­form. “Re­dis­trict­ing has been a very power­ful force for Re­pub­lic­ans to shore up their ma­jor­ity,” says Jesse Fer­guson, who ran the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ure pro­gram in 2014. “But they can­not defy math, and at some point these fast-grow­ing pop­u­la­tions will force a real­ity where some of these seats go our way, un­less Re­pub­lic­ans do something sig­ni­fic­ant to right them­selves with these [minor­ity] com­munit­ies.”

The one point on which both parties can agree is that while win­ning more of these di­verse seats won’t be suf­fi­cient for Demo­crats to re­cap­ture the House, it is a ne­ces­sary first step. Un­less and un­til they take it, House Demo­crats will face a dis­tinct dis­ad­vant­age in their up­hill climb to re­gain a ma­jor­ity.

Contributions by Stephanie Stamm and Janie Boschma

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