To many, the 2012 elections was a harbinger of the coming Democratic political dominance. Our nation’s largest and fastest growing minority groups, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians, voted overwhelmingly in favor of President Obama and the Democrats, just as they had in 2008. Although Republicans gained strength among white voters, white voters as a percentage of the total vote slipped from 77% in 2004 to 72% in 2012. In a nation trending from 64% white today to 56% white by 2030, traditional wisdom suggests a Democratic demographic dominance is all but certain.
I think the common wisdom may be wrong on three counts.
First, although Hispanic, African American and Asian voters showed up in greater numbers in the last two elections, they still account for about a third of the total vote. In the 2012 election, voters under 45 accounted for 46% of the total vote, far more than expected. In fact, this was the only demographic group to actually vote in higher numbers than they did in 2008. They voted 61% for candidate Obama in 2008 but only 55% for President Obama in 2012, a drop of 6%. Had the under 45 vote split evenly last year, President Obama would have lost by approximately a million votes, even with the higher turnout and huge support of the growing minority groups.
Even more interesting is the core beliefs of the under 45 demographic. They are significantly more fiscally conservative than the population as a whole and nearly 70% support a limited federal government over a more socially active government. From our research we find this group is also the most receptive to policy input from their employer. They tend to support business interests and dislike extremists of either side. For these voters, the core conservative principle of “equality under the law” extends to those with non-traditional lifestyles. With 60% of them strongly favoring civil marriages, they are far more socially tolerant than the base GOP. In short, voters under 45 trend towards being Libertarians, which explains their attraction to Congressman Ron Paul in last year’s GOP primary. In the end, when forced to choose between the fiscal conservatism and perceived social intolerance of the GOP or the less attractive fiscal but more tolerant social stands of the Democrats, enough chose the latter. Even so, that was a comparative choice in 2012, not a permanent demographic indicator.
Second, tradition dictates we view demographics in traditional terms: by race and religion. But in the age of the Internet, much of that doesn’t matter as much as it used to and a lot less than it is going to in the future. Last year, about 40% of those under 45 got their political information from the Internet, compared to about 22% for the population as a whole. For those under 30, if your message wasn’t offered in new media formats, it wasn’t heard at all. Minorities who use the Internet are even more likely to get their information from social networks than non-minorities. These voters are moving to cell phones and social networks, and texting is their form of “conversation.” In this emerging environment, race, ethnicity and religion tend to lose some of their relevancy. What emerges is a more colorblind, multi-lingual and universal discussion on issues, attitudes and outcomes.
Third, things change. Evolving economies, new leaders and events make a difference. African Americans were once Republicans and southern whites were once Democrats. As an African American, President Obama empowered a generation of new black political activism just as Ronald Reagan gave voice to a new generation of conservative activism. Charismatic leaders can do that.
None of this is to suggest Republicans don’t need to do some serious outreach to minority voters. They do. This does suggest, however, that their highest priority should be on their messaging to younger voters who are inclined to drift toward the GOP message on core economics. This also suggests no amount of outreach to minorities or those under 45 will be fruitful if the Republicans can’t shake the image of social intolerance. No one should be so foolish to think they can succeed without making a new media infrastructure and strategy their highest priority tactic.