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Genes and Memes Drive US Demographic Shift

Republicans suffered a major electoral defeat in 2012. Barack Obama remains president, and the Republican establishment is reeling. From party leaders to the rank-and-file, Republicans are busy picking through the ruins of defeat – and planning their next moves.

Historic demographic changes underline 2012 as a turning point in America’s electoral profile. Latino and other non-white voters now comprise a substantial portion of the voter rolls and exert a bigger influence on election politics than ever before. Exit polls after the November elections showed that nationally, 93% of African American voters and 71% of Latino voters cast their ballot in favor of President Obama.

Across the so-called swing states, racial demographics decided the outcome of the electoral college in 2012. For example, this year in Ohio, blacks composed 15% of the electorate, compared to 11% in 2008. In Florida, the Hispanic vote increased from 14% to 17% during the same period. Republican campaign planners are surely worried about the future of these critical battleground states: Obama won them both.

In California, increasing diversity corresponds to a more Democratic-leaning electorate among white voters.  In November, Obama won California by a whopping 60% to 38% over Mitt Romney. California has the largest population of white Americans in the U.S. with about 22.2 million residents,  but overall whites account for only about 40% of the state’s population.  Yet Obama won 52% of the white vote in California – a decidedly blue result.

The percentage of the US population that identified as Latino has increased from 7% in 2008 to 17% in 2012, and when less than 1 in 10 non-white voters leans Republican, those numbers add up to a substantial tilt favoring Democrats.

Meanwhile, true to the script that whites tend to vote Republican, heartland states with majority-white populations continue to vote Republican year after year.

Blue states with white-dominated populations pose a dilemma to the popular notion that white equals red.  Like the majority of whites in California, whites in Colorado, Washington and Oregon all voted to re-elect President Obama.

What accounts for the difference? In some areas of the country – the US coastal regions, for instance – diversity of memes may be as important as diversity of genes in determining whether a state is blue or red.

Ideological diversity has long been a trademark of port cities with histories of immigration. Places like Boston, New York, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and other major coastal cities have all been favored destinations for immigrants. Racially diverse populations are more likely to be ideologically diverse as well. This helps explain why whites in blue states are more likely to vote Democratic.

On the other hand, in places like the American heartland, the grain belt, and the south, less immigration and less international trade equals views that are more insular and less metropolitan.  In America, as in many places across the globe, a uniform population tends to reflect a more conservative political tradition.

Famed statistician Nate Silver confirmed the point in a TED talk a few years ago.  As he reported, on election day, 2008, exit pollsters in 37 of the 50 states asked the following question, “In deciding your vote for president today, was the race of the candidates a factor?”

Here is a sampling of results:

Louisiana: 20.5%
Kentucky: 15.8%
South Carolina: 14.7%
Alaska: 14.0%
West Virginia: 13.9%

New York: 4.6%
Illinois: 4.5%
Washington: 3.6%
California: 3.3%

Populations in red states were many times more likely to answer “yes” to the question of whether they had a racial bias in selecting a national leader.

Not surprisingly, Silver found that states that had the lowest level of education and those that were more rural, tended to show the largest racial bias. He also found that whites who lived in mixed race neighborhoods were much more likely to vote for Obama than whites who lived in all-white neighborhoods.

All of this adds up to grave challenges for the Republican party, because their support comes overwhelmingly from white voters living in red states.  And while Governor Romney carried a greater percentage – 59% – of the white vote than any other presidential candidate in history, he was defeated handily by President Obama.

The results of the 2012 election represents a phase-change in American politics:  as of now, it is no longer possible for any political party to win the Presidency by relying on votes from any single ethnic group in America – whites included.


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