Election 2012 saw a number of Lehman College students cast a Presidential ballot for the first time. Even as their first Presidential vote was a lifetime milestone of sorts, the election was not a realigning one. Control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives remained unchanged.
In general, the outcome of national elections is a function of a number of variables. Outcomes are a product of the individual candidates, the nation’s circumstances, and structural factors that shape the electorate’s long-term voting patterns.
Occasionally, the first factor can drive the outcome. Typically, that happens when one of the candidates is a charismatic leader whose appeal transcends partisan and ideological lines. Examples of such leaders include Franklin Delano Roosevelt from the Democrats and Ronald Reagan from the Republicans.
National circumstances regularly play the leading role in a given election. The state of the economy and expectations about the economy are often the leading issue. Every voter is impacted in some fashion by the economy. When the economy is strong or it is improving, voters tend to be risk-averse in their choice. Continuity takes precedence over change. When the economy is weak or deteriorating, voters are less risk-averse. Change takes precedence over continuity. The 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2004 elections occurred in the former context. The 1980, 1992, 2000, 2008 and 2012 elections occurred in the latter context.
Election 2012 was notable in that one witnessed the early stages of a convergence of structural factors—changing technology and shifting demographics—at work. Those factors could shape the political landscape for a generation or more.
Political parties do not enjoy the luxury of being immune to the consequences of those forces. They function within that environment. Their ability to leverage that context can allow them to build long-periods of dominance. Their unwillingness or inability to adapt to changes in the structural environment can lock them out of power for long periods of time. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties have experienced lengthy periods in and out of power.
Changing technology has reduced barriers to voting. Reduced barriers to voting could increase voter participation. After bottoming out at 49% in the 1996 Presidential election, voter turnout has experienced a modest rebound in subsequent elections, even considering the drop in 2012 turnout. In an environment of greater voter participation, political candidates will need to broaden their appeal to forge winning coalitions.
Important as technology might be, the most profound structural factor shaping the U.S. political landscape is demographic change. Changing demographics are producing an increasingly diverse electorate, with Hispanic voters comprising the fastest growing voter segment. In 2004, Hispanics accounted for 8% of the vote. In 2008, that figure rose to 9%. In 2012, it increased further to 10%.
That trend will continue, if not accelerate somewhat in coming decades based on Census projections. In 2010, Hispanics accounted for 16% of the U.S. population vs. 9% twenty years earlier. By 2050, the Census Bureau forecasts that Hispanics will make up approximately 25% of the population. If the Bureau’s 1990-2010 forecasting error is representative of the 1990-2050 forecasting period as a whole, the actual figure might be closer to 30%.
Given these numbers, Hispanics will play an increasingly important role in the political balance of power. Hispanic voters could become the indispensable swing vote. Any Party that consistently neglects the aspirations, interests, and needs of that growing segment of voters could wind up locking itself out of power. Then, just as is the case when companies fail to respond to a changing environment, which renders them uncompetitive, the political party would find itself in a crisis and in need of a dramatic restructuring of its outlook and policy positions.
Looking back, the 2012 election was largely driven by national circumstances and the political status quo was reaffirmed. Nonetheless, the emerging narrative of the nation’s changing demographics was readily visible. Given the persistent nature of demographic change, one can be confident that Hispanic voters will play an even larger role in coming Presidential elections. How the Parties respond remains to be seen, but the high stakes involved make adaptation an increasing prerequisite for future electoral success.