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Where Do We Go from Here? The Democratic Coalition in 2020 and Beyond

I hope the Democrats nominate someone who can generate enthusiasm because he or she genuinely appeals to Democratic voters.

Where Do We Go from Here? The Democratic Coalition in 2020 and Beyond
Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris (Credit: Shutterstock.com)

What does a winning Democratic coalition look like? Over the past several weeks, I have argued that the Democratic Party should not focus its energy on winning over Donald Trump voters in the 2020 presidential election. Instead, the Democratic nominee should work to increase turnout among the Democrats’ core supporters: African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and White liberals.   

So, what does such a coalition look like? What level of turnout would it take for the Democrats to win? How can the Democrats overcome the Republicans’ advantage in the Electoral College?  

We can begin to answer these questions by thinking about what the country’s population will look like in 2020.  

Demographic Changes Since 2016 

According to the U.S. Census, in 2020 the U.S. population will be 59.6 percent non-Hispanic White, 13.3 percent African-American, 5.9 percent Asian and 19 percent Latino. Smaller groups such as Native Americans and people who identify as biracial make up the remainder.  

The ratio of groups is changing quickly. Non-Hispanic Whites were 61.7 percent of the population in 2015, while Latinos were 17.6 percent and Asians were 5.4 percent. The African-American share of the population is stable at just over 13 percent.  

However, while non-Hispanic Whites are projected to make up 59.6 percent of the country’s total population, they will make up a larger share of the voting eligible population. This discrepancy is because the White population is older (and more likely to be 18) and contains relatively few noncitizens (who are ineligible to vote). According to the Pew Center, non-Hispanic Whites will make up roughly 67 percent of eligible voters in 2020. 

African-Americans, Asians, Latinos and all other groups will make up the remaining 33 percent of eligible voters. This is an all-time high, up from 30 percent in 2016. For the first time, Latinos are projected to make up a larger proportion of eligible voters than African-Americans (13.3 vs. 12.5 percent). 

Groups that lean Democratic are growing. Trump had to thread a needle to win in 2016. Demographic changes will make his path to re-election even narrower.  

Turnout 

Yet, being eligible to vote does not always result in a sufficient turnout at the polls. For the Democrats, the challenge is ensuring these voters show up. 

The figure below shows turnout by group over the past several presidential elections. As the table makes clear, White college graduates voted at the highest rate—averaging 73.5 percent turnout since 2004. African-Americans were next highest, averaging 58.5 percent, followed by Whites without a college degree (52.6) and Latinos (42.2 percent).  


Figure: Turnout in Presidential Elections by Group 2004-2016 

What is interesting is that Black turnout varies more than other groups. Black turnout was high in 2008 and 2012—well over 60 percent, but low in 2004 (51.5 percent) when Republican George W. Bush won re-election and between these two extremes in 2016 (58.5 percent).  

Latino turnout has been consistently between 40 and 45 percent. The Democrats have had a tough time consistently mobilizing Hispanics, although there are more voting because the group is growing so rapidly.  

White turnout has been generally stable. One point that deserves mention is that Trump did not produce a significant increase in turnout among Whites without a college degree. White working-class turnout was just over 50 percent in 2016, a rate that was almost identical to 2012 and actually down from 2004 and 2008. 

Looking Forward to 2020 

Recent presidential elections have been competitively fought and the outcomes were very close. This means that even small changes in turnout or demographics have the potential to affect election outcomes. 

We saw this in 2016, where Black turnout declined. This, more than any other factor, hurt the Democrats. The Democratic presidential candidate will be very tough to beat if he or she can find a way to get Black turnout over 60 percent in 2020. Black voters are especially important for the Democrats because there are large African-American populations in critical states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  

The Democratic Party has made inroads among White college graduates in 2016 and 2018. This is a big help on the congressional and presidential levels.  

Latinos are the wildcard. Hillary Clinton did quite well among Hispanics in 2016, which is not surprising given her opponent. However, the increase in support did not help Clinton much in the Electoral College.  

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The majority of states with the biggest Latino populations (Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas) have not been competitive in recent years (Florida is an exception). The Democrats easily win California and New Mexico while the Republicans easily win Arizona and Texas.  

Yet, as we saw with Beto O’Rourke’s near miss in Texas, the combination of demographic changes and increases in turnout can quickly put states in play that were once considered out of reach.  

The Democrats won the Arizona Senate race in 2018 and nearly won the Senate race in Texas. If the Democratic candidate can drive Latino turnout to, say, 50 percent then all bets are off. The 2018 Midterm showed that the Democrats can with either Arizona or Texas on the strength of high Latino turnout combined with increased support among White college graduates.  

Trump cannot win without Texas and its 38 Electoral Votes. Even losing Arizona would likely be crippling.  

Choosing a Candidate 

My hope is that the Democrats nominate a candidate who is not just an alternative to Trump, a president who is morally and intellectually unfit for the job. Rather, I hope the Democrats nominate someone who can generate enthusiasm because he or she genuinely appeals to Democratic voters.  

In 2008, Barack Obama won more votes than any other presidential candidate in history—before or since. He did not generate this unprecedented level of support simply because he was an alternative to George Bush and John McCain—people actually wanted to show up and vote for him.  

There will never be another Barack Obama, so it is pointless to try and look for a second one. But there is a lesson here—there is nothing to gain from nominating a “safe” candidate. Look what happened in 2016.   

Beyond 2020  

The pace of demographic change is not slowing down. American is becoming an increasingly diverse country. The Democrats should position themselves to succeed not only in 2020, but in the decades to come, by selecting a candidate who is well-suited to appeal to and govern an increasingly diverse America.  

Josh Zingher is an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshuaZingher

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