The Untold Future of American Politics

New York Times
CCIS Research Associate Zoltan Hajnal’s article on the future of American politics is published in The New York Times.


BY ZOLTAN HAJNAL and TAEKU LEE   JUNE 4, 2012

Volunteer

A volunteer for Mi Familia Vota working to register people to vote in Denver.
(Matthew Staver for The New York Times)

The demographic future of the United States is clear. Sometime around 2050 today’s racial and ethnic minorities will likely become a majority. Understanding that change is one of the keys to understanding the future of American politics, but not in the way that most people believe. The conventional view is that in the decades to come the growing minority population and its strong ties to the Democratic Party will be a boon to Democrats and a blight for Republicans.

But that view overlooks the two central features of America’s racial and ethnic minority population: ambivalence about both political parties, and at the moment, staggeringly low rates of political participation. Most Asian-American and Latino adults are not tied to either political party and most currently do not vote.

Many of the numbers do point to Democratic ascendance. On one side of the equation, the Republican Party has effectively become the party of white America. More than 90 percent of John McCain’s votes in 2008 came from white Americans. On the other side, the Democratic Party has largely won over the minority vote. In 2008 Barack Obama won 95 percent of the black vote, 67 percent of the Latino vote, and 62 percent of the Asian-American vote. This pull toward the Democratic Party is not specific to Obama: in the 2010 Congressional elections, exit polls show that Democratic candidates garnered 91 percent of the black vote, 66 percent of the Latino vote and 59 percent of the Asian-American vote.

Putting together demographic trends with past performance, most observers and strategists say that Republican demise is all but inevitable. We don’t. Our research shows that the dominant force among minorities is not attachment to the Democratic Party but uncertainty about where they fit into American politics.

When asked in national surveys, most Latinos and Asian-Americans say that they don’t fit into a party at all. The largest segments of the Latino and Asian-American populations do not identify as Democrats, as the conventional wisdom would suggest, but rather as “nonidentifiers” – those who refuse altogether to answer a question about party identification or who claim that they do not think in partisan terms. Combined, these nonidentifiers and others who expressly state they are ‘independent’ make up the clear majority of both groups. All told, 56 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of Asian-American identify as independent or as nonidentifiers. Even among blacks, there are signs of growing ambivalence. For example, almost 30 percent of blacks feel that the Democratic Party does not work hard for black interests.

Critically, this nonpartisan population is neither apolitical nor unreachable. A lot of racial and ethnic minorities are currently on the sidelines of American politics, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Today’s minorities are no different from the minorities of yesterday in one very important sense: They are politically approachable and readily mobilized. A range of recent experimental studies has shown that when politically inactive minorities are contacted by parties and especially when they are properly approached, many of them do become engaged and participate.

What this means is that the future of the minority vote, and consequently the balance of power in American politics, is still very much up for grabs. If either party wants to attain dominance, it ignores this segment of the American population at its own peril.

The real challenge is how. Targeting the “median voter” no longer makes sense. America is now too diverse with too many different sets of concerns and issues. It is far from obvious where today’s median voter lies and less than clear which segments of the electorate will be drawn to a strategy to vie for that median voter.

Instead, we suggest that to reach America’s increasingly mixed electorate, candidates and political parties should run a multifaceted and multiracial campaign. Rather than ignore race or use race to lure whites together into a largely exclusionary majority, the alternative we offer is a strategy of smartly and selectively narrow casting to different voters, where and when it is appropriate. Essentially, parties should endeavor to build future winning coalitions through a mixed strategy of broadly based meat-and-potatoes issues like taxes, the deficit, safety nets, and foreign policy that brand Democrats as Democrats and Republicans as Republicans with tightly packaged appeals to targeted electorates.

This strategy is complex. It entails collecting good focus group and polling data on groups like Latinos and Asian-Americans, then carefully combing through a political agenda, then finding a fit that homes in on issues of particular concern to groups like Latinos and Asian-Americans without repelling support from one’s party base or centrist Independents. For Latinos, that issue might be some narrow elements of immigration reform, like allowing children a path to citizenship through college or the military – a policy that was needlessly attacked by Republican leaders. For Asian-Americans, either party might make inroads without raising a ruckus by strengthening incentives for highly skilled immigrants or by finding non-polarizing ways of further supporting the enforcement of language accommodations in existing election laws. For African-Americans, now might be an opportune moment for either party to take a strong stand against Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law or especially egregious forms of racial profiling, without incurring a full-on political backlash.

The winnable set of issues may be thin, but the list is longer than you might think. Since the areas of unique concern to one group can often be inconsequential to the core concerns of a second (or third or fourth) group, this multipronged approach can slowly build up support from a fairly diverse array of interests. The key is to embrace the new reality of America’s diverse electorate through targeted issue-based appeals — rather than overlooking race altogether, making symbolic gestures, or seeing only zero-sum trade-offs between the continued loyalty of established racial groups and the burgeoning support of emerging groups.

The consequences are huge. Despite the Obama campaign’s remarkable mobilization of first-time Latino and Asian-American voters in 2008, more than half of voter-eligible citizens in these rapidly growing segments of the electorate stayed home. These are people who could be mobilized, who could be attracted to a party, and who could sway electoral outcomes. They should not be ignored.

At present, one party – the Democratic Party – has an edge with minority voters. But the eventual outcome of the battle for America’s diverse uncommitted population is far from settled. Ultimately, the extent to which minorities become fully politically incorporated and the success or failure of both political parties depends very much on how the Democrats and the Republicans approach America’s changing racial demographics.

Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee are the authors of “Why Americans Don’t Join the Party: Race, Immigration, and the Failure (of Political Parties) to Engage the Electorate.’ Hajnal is professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Lee is professor of political science and law at the University of California, Berkeley.

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