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Democrats and the Myth of the "Non-White" Bloc

1:19 PM, Dec 22, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Democrats and the Myth of the "Non-White" Bloc

New Mexico governor-elect Susana Martinez

Liberals seem to be pretty gosh darned unhappy with the state of the political alignment these days. They were miserable during the Bush years, and they have grown quite ornery with the Obama administration, despite the fact that the 44th president delivered Obamacare. It's been a long time in the wilderness for the American left, so frankly it's hard to blame them for being so surly. After all, the last successful liberal president was probably LBJ, whom the liberals never really accepted as one of their own and who got the United States neck-deep in Vietnam. Before him, you have to go back to the New Deal, which basically ended with the 1938 midterm. One could say the left has been in the wilderness for 70+ years, much longer than the conservative dry spell between Coolidge and Reagan.

Maybe this is why many liberals are so fond of the "emerging Democratic majority" thesis, which basically holds that demographic changes in the electorate will soon obviate many of our political cleavages, push the Republican Party to the left, and return the Democratic Party to its rightful place of prominence. This argument goes back to a book by John Judis and Ruy Teixiera, first published about a decade ago. The idea has proven remarkably durable for liberals, who are wont to cite it in fat years as well as lean ones. For instance, 2006 and 2008 were regularly regarded as years in which this majority was starting to manifest itself, while 2010 was dismissed as the sign of a possible long term trend because this pro-Democratic majority was bound to show up once again. The evolution of this theory could be a case study in how an interesting argument transforms into an unfalsifiable hypothesis: heads, Democrats win; tails, Republicans lose.

Now, don't get me wrong. There is a lot of insight to be found in this argument, and in particular conservatives really need to get their minds around three simple facts: (a) the Hispanic bloc is growing in this country; (b) Republicans can win Hispanic voters, but they need to be thoughtful in their appeals to them; (c) sooner rather than later Republicans will need Hispanic voters for victory. I am sure the details of the Census report will confirm all three points.

But my biggest objection to the liberal arguments is that they are far too prone to overstate their case. If conservatives have yet to realize fully the necessity of appealing to Hispanic voters, liberals are too quick to put them in the electoral bank. You see this over-confidence in subtle ways, most notably in what I would call the left's demographic category error -- whereby liberal analysts lump Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, etc. into a "Non-White" category, which is then implicitly assumed to be a uniformly Democratic bloc. In response to the Census report, that's exactly what Christopher Beam of Slate does in this article, when he concludes:

Does that mean the country will become permanently Democratic? Of course not. Both parties will adjust to accommodate the shifting demographics. But Republicans will be playing catchup. The GOP will inevitably become more amenable to immigration reform, gay marriage, and separation of church and state, as their constituencies become more Hispanic, educated, and godless, respectively. Hispanics may not support Democrats forever—in 2004, about 40 percent voted for Bush—and some young Democrats will become old Republicans, but the blue team will have a lead.

Beam is following the basic script -- key Democratic groups, "non-white voters," college educated women, college kids, etc., are growing, so sooner or later the Democratic positions are going to win out.

I've addressed this broad argument several times before (see here, here, and here, for instance), so today I would just like to focus on this specific notion of the "non-white" bloc as it relates to the latest Census results, particularly to Texas, which is picking up four new House seats. I cannot state matters more plainly: Hispanic voters do not vote like African-American voters. The latter constitute a core Democratic group that systematically breaks 90:10 against the GOP, regardless of the political environment. Hispanic voters, on the other hand, comprise a swing group that currently tilts Democratic, but Republican candidates who are careful and considered in their appeals can make significant inroads into the Democratic margin. This is quite evident in the Lone Star State, as the following chart indicates:

On average over the last three cycles, Republican candidates have pulled in about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. This is why Texas remains such a strongly Republican state, even though just 67 percent of statewide voters in 2010 were white. 

It's worth mentioning another difference between Hispanics and African-Americans -- the latter group is uniformly Democratic across the whole country. African Americans who live in the rural South are overwhelmingly Democratic, so are those who live in the big cities in the North. Yet Hispanics are much more heterogeneous. You see above, for instance, the strength that Republican candidates have with Hispanics in Texas, and you could make a similar point about Florida. To these states we could also add New Mexico, where you really cannot win statewide without substantial Hispanic support, as well as Colorado, where John McCain won 38 percent of Hispanic voters in 2008. But Republicans do notably worse with Hispanics in California, and they are also weak with urban Hispanic voters in big Northern cities like Chicago and New York. In none of these states can the GOP reasonably expect to crack 30 percent of the Hispanic vote. Nevada, meanwhile, is a state where the GOP is slipping among Hispanics;  Bush carried 39 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, but Sharron Angle won just 30 percent in 2010.

I mention all of this not hoping to persuade liberals to correct this category error -- I'm not holding my breath on that one. Instead, the message here is for conservatives not to be persuaded by the story that the left tells itself about demographic destiny. It's greatly overstated, and the rising Hispanic bloc presents conservatives, especially social conservatives, with a wealth of opportunities. What they need to do is roll up their sleeves and figure out how to make further gains with Hispanics because this is a rising group of voters that is in play. Liberals might not see it that way, but it would be a real shame if conservatives don't, either.

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