States, demographics, and Democratic strategy

I was recently thinking that I hadn’t read any compelling demographic-political analysis from Ron Brownstein in a while.  Good news– great piece last week in the Atlantic summarizing key developments and giving informed speculation about the political implications.  Highlights:

For Democrats, the Sun Belt imperative is growing more urgent.

While most in the party are preoccupied with winning back the three Rust Belt states that tipped the 2016 election to Donald Trump, both people and political power are continuing to migrate inexorably from that region to the younger and more diverse states in the Southeast and Southwest.

This sustained population shift reinforces the consequences of Trump’s political repositioning of the Republican Party. Trump has targeted his polarizing message and agenda heavily toward the priorities of the older and non-college-educated white voters who still dominate most of the Rust Belt. That will make it tough for Democrats to rely on those states, particularly in presidential races, as much as they did during the 1990s and earlier this century.

In the near future, then, Democrats will likely need to offset any Republican gains in the Rust Belt by winning more elections in Sun Belt states, which are adding more of the diverse, white-collar, and urbanized voters at the core of the modern Democratic coalition. [emphases mine] Through the coming decade and beyond, the crucial variable that could tilt the national balance of power between the parties may be whether Democrats can leverage those demographic advantages in the Sun Belt to break the hold Republicans have enjoyed on most of the region since at least the 1970s.

“If Democrats can make that pivot, they are in the driver’s seat for a long time to come, because these Sun Belt states are the growing states,” William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, told me.

The challenge facing Democrats is that while the demographic trends are more favorable for them in the Sun Belt, the political attitudes among the white population specifically are not. This could expose the party to the same risk in 2020 that I wrote about on Election Day 2016: that the Democrats’ old coalition in the Rust Belt will crumble faster than its new coalition coalesces in the Sun Belt. If that happens, it could leave Democrats just short in enough key states in both regions to allow Trump to win reelection, even if he loses the total popular vote by a greater margin than he did last time…

The continued growth of the Sun Belt is the biggest takeaway from the new population estimates that the Census Bureau released in late December

But on a regional basis, the new numbers have profound implications. Brace projects that Texas will add three House seats and Florida two, while North Carolina, Arizona, and Colorado will add one each. The losers are mostly concentrated across the Northeast and upper Midwest: New York, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Minnesota are all on track to lose a seat.

The reapportionments after both the 2000 and 2010 censuses produced comparable shifts in representation from the Northeast and Midwest to the Sun Belt. If the projections for 2020 prove accurate, it will mean that since the start of this century, more than 30 seats and Electoral College votes will have shifted from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, with no Rust Belt state gaining a seat at any point. A map from Election Data Services tracking the cumulative impact of reapportionment from 1910 through 2010 captures an even more dramatic shift of power and population to the Sun Belt states…

But the steady decline of the Midwest now has consequences for both parties because those states are so integral to Trump’s political strategy. From immigration and trade to race relations and gun control, Trump has focused his agenda on maximizing the GOP’s support among older, blue-collar, nonurban, and Christian white voters, groups that remain powerful, even preponderant, across the Midwest, even as they’re shrinking as a share of the national population. That emphasis helped him flip a total of five Rust Belt states that voted for Barack Obama in 2012, including the three he dislodged from the Democrats’ “blue wall”: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

But if Brace’s projections are right, in this century those five states will shed a combined 13 Electoral College votes. Put another way: Trump is steering the GOP toward greater reliance on the Rust Belt precisely as the region’s overall electoral clout is receding. That’s a geographic parallel to the demographic trade Trump has imposed on his party by trying to squeeze bigger margins out of voter groups that are dwindling.

The price for this trade is the resistance he’s triggered among younger people, voters of color, and college-educated white voters, all of them concentrated in the nation’s major metropolitan areas—and prominent in the Sun Belt...

But two factors above all have prevented Democrats from fully capitalizing on favorable Sun Belt trends. One is a persistent problem mobilizing the growing population of minority voters, especially young ones, to turn out…

The other challenge facing Democrats is that both non-college-educated and college-educated white voters in the Sun Belt have traditionally leaned more conservative than they do in the Rust Belt…

The principal battlefield of the 2020 election may remain Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But the unstinting population shifts that the census recorded last month make it inevitable that the partisan and generational struggles for control of the nation’s direction will be decided more and more in the Sun Belt.

It would be pure folly for the Democrats to ignore these key Rust Belt states in 2020.  But, what is shaping up as the keys for the future seems increasingly clear.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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