The Intersection: May 2014

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America’s Changing Demographic Landscape

As we’re all well aware, the NBA Commissioner recently announced that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling would be suspended for life from the NBA for racist comments he made that were caught on tape.

I confess that I was blindsided by the rapidity with which the NBA Commissioner made his announcement. But considering the demographics of the NBA players and the league’s fan base, maybe it was a slam dunk to hand down a swift and severe punishment. Nate Silver notes in FiveThirtyEight that “47 percent of NBA head coaches and 81 percent of players were non-white.” According to his analysis, the majority of NBA fans are racial or ethnic minorities, “and the Clippers, which play in the cosmopolitan Los Angeles market, likely have among the most diverse fan base in the league.” The NBA Commissioner and the NBA owners wanted to assure their players, ticket and merchandise purchasers, corporate sponsors and customers that there is zero tolerance for bigotry.

What does basketball have to do with politics, political messaging and campaign tactics? As it turns out, plenty. Just as the NBA is keenly aware of the demographics of their fan base and the need to appeal to a broader audience in order to grow, so too are both parties aware of the changing voter demographics and the need to find ways to attract voters.

The Pew Research Center attributed President Obama’s victory in the 2012 presidential election largely to minority groups who gave him 80% of their votes. These groups are on track to become a majority of the nation’s population by 2050, according to projections by the Pew Research Center. They currently make up 37% of the population, and they cast a record 28% of the votes in the 2012 presidential election, according to exit polls.

By 2050, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population could be as high as 29%, up from 17% now. The black proportion of the population is projected to rise slightly to 13%, while the Asian share is projected to increase to 9% from its current 5%. Non-Hispanic whites, 63% of the current population, will decrease to half or slightly less than half of the population by 2050. By 2050 the Census Bureau estimates that white Americans will be a statistical minority in the nation, with no racial group comprising more than 50 percent of the population.

People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.

– attributed to the late Jack Kemp

Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. States that Republican presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic. The Republican Party posits in its Growth & Opportunity Project  that, at the federal level, much of what Republicans are doing is not working beyond the core constituencies that make up the party. On the state level, however, Republicans hold governorships in 30 states, the most governors either party has had in 12 years. The Republican Party attributes its gains in governorships to Republican governors’ ability to appeal beyond the party’s orthodoxy. Given the country’s increasingly diverse population, the Republican Party correctly surmises in the Project’s findings that it will have to:

  • Learn to appeal to more people, including those who share some, but not all, of its conservative principles.
  • Be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life. Low-income Americans are hard-working people who want to become hard-working middle-income Americans.
  • Actively listen to and reach out to minority communities to demonstrate their importance.

The Democratic Party’s biggest weakness is that it may interpret the shifting demographics as a permanent path to federal election victory. While it is true that the minority groups that President Obama carried with 80 percent of the vote in 2012 are on track to become a majority of the nation’s population by 2050, it is equally true that these groups are not monolithic. Given that senior citizens will make up 1 in 5 U.S. residents by 2050 and that most of them will be white, the Democratic Party will have to find ways to balance its messaging to appeal to many different groups without sounding schizophrenic. Specifically the Democratic Party must continue to:

  • Appeal to professionals, women and minorities without alienating blue-collar workers who abandoned the party in the 1970’s.
  • Champion both government regulation and government reform, including controls on spending.
  • Articulate that government has a role in alleviating poverty, but not in providing “make-work” jobs.

In short, both parties will have to find a way to gravitate towards the middle tactically, potentially embracing socially liberal or libertarian, reformist and egalitarian policies. Just as baseball managers keep an infielder close to each base to make it difficult for the opposing teams’ runners to reach them safely, so too will the Republican and Democratic parties cover all their messaging bases to appeal to the broadest number of voters in the quickly changing America.