international analysis and commentary

America’s line of color: racial diversity in the 2016 elections


Italian soccer and American elections have this wonderful thing in common: anything can happen. In March, rookie team Sassuolo beat 18-time Italian champion Milan in the “Serie A” tournament; and in November many political upsets will indeed happen in local and national races from Alaska to Puerto Rico, albeit not as frequently as the media would like. The question is what can happen in the presidential contest. After the widely expected victories for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the New York primaries, there are both established facts and significant uncertainties in the ongoing campaigns.

Forget the headlines: there are some basic realities of the political game (political scientists call them the fundamentals) that shape the environment in which an election takes place and change only very slowly. It’s not every year that a first-term senator from Illinois becomes the presidential candidate of a major party and goes on to win the presidency: it happened only in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln and in 2008 with Barack Obama.

The first, and most important, of these realities is demography: America today is not the America of 1980, or 1960. In 1968, for example, the US had approximately 25 million African Americans and Hispanics, or 12% of the population. By 2008, there were more than 104 million people of color, or 36% of the population. In 1965 there were fewer than 9 million people of Latino origin in the United States; in 2013 that number had grown to 54 million. In the last half century, the Asian American population ballooned from 2 million to more than 18 million people.

This change has been the product of immigration but also of different birth rates and death rates in ethnic groups: on average, every day 6,048 white babies are born, but these represent only 49% percent of all newborns. At the same time, there are about 5,204 whites who die every day. For minorities, however, there are 6,295 births per day on average, but only 1,442 deaths, because of the median younger age of African Americans, Latinos and Asians. This produces a net increase of 4,853 non-white people every day, or about 1,770,000 persons every year – not counting immigration.

This changing racial makeup has important political consequences: the “line of color” has not been erased after Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, quite the contrary. As the eruption of nativism and xenophobia activated by Donald Trump’s campaign has revealed, ethnicity is still a powerful force in American politics. So powerful, indeed, that no Democratic candidate for president has won a majority of white voters since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in 1964, when the Democrats obtained 61% of ballots, and Republicans 38.4%. Obama received just 39% of the white vote in 2012 and nevertheless prevailed against Mitt Romney by a large margin in the popular vote, and an even larger one in the Electoral College. Because of the strong minority turnout, exit polls have shown that Obama would have beaten Romney with just 36.5% of the white vote. 

Donald Trump has been able in exploiting fears of immigration, particularly from Latin America, but clearly he hasn’t looked closely at the numbers: today Hispanics are the largest “minority” group in the country, with a population that exceeds 54 million people, or 17% of the total US population. Calling them “criminals” and “rapists”, while proposing the building of a wall at the Mexican border seems to be a sure recipe to get them to the polls in droves, and cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate.

In American elections, the key is turnout simply because rules were written to discourage people from voting: just think of the fact that Election Day is set on a Tuesday, not on a Sunday or on a holiday. Citizens must be strongly motivated to go to the polls, and political scientists have known for a long time that there is a strong correlation between income, age and turnout: the older you are the higher the probability you vote. The richer you are, the higher the chances you wait in line to cast your ballot. Young people, African Americans and Latinos have historically had lower levels of turnout, especially in midterm elections.

This has been an important advantage for Republican candidates, who enjoy of a significantly higher consensus among 65-plus citizens and among whites. Therefore, the question is whether in November the turnout of minorities will offset the participation of senior, white, voters.  In 2008, the presence of a black man at the top of the ticket motivated African Americans to go to the polls in unprecedented numbers: for the first time their turnout exceeded that of whites.

The political allegiances of these groups have hardened in recent years. Thirty years ago, the US had a relatively large number of voters willing to swing their allegiance from one party to the other according to the situation, the personality of the candidates, and the political platforms. According to Emory University’s Alan Abramowits, this is hardly the case now, “As a result of increasing partisan-ideological polarization, an electoral process characterized by candidate-centered campaigns aimed primarily at persuading swing voters has been transformed into one characterized by party-centered campaigns aimed primarily at mobilizing core party supporters.”

African Americans and Latinos are indeed part of Democratic core party supporters. Together with young, unmarried white women, another reliable Democratic constituency, they are the pillars of a long-term political realignment at the presidential level. In fact, there are 33 states out of 50 where this coalition approaches the mathematical majority of eligible voters. Those 33 states have 398 electoral votes, far more than the 270 it takes to win the White House (Barack Obama won 365 electoral votes in 2008, and 332 in 2012; since then the population shift has tilted the political environment further to the left). As author Steven Phillips points out, “America has a progressive, multiracial majority right now that has the power to elect presidents and reshape American politics, policies, and priorities for decades to come. Not in 2044. Not ten years down the road. Today.”

So, it’s perfectly possible that a stunning upset will happen, and that the Republicans will win in November. On the other hand, fundamentals say that this is an election for the Democrats to lose.