The Obama Coalition Seems to Be Holding Up Pretty Well

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Elephant and donkey touching faces together
For whatever reason, the demographic groups that Obama carried so handily are not straying into the GOP column so far.Photo: John Lund/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

One of the bigger — maybe the biggest — political questions for 2016 other than the identity of the major-party nominees is whether the so-called "Obama coalition" of minority and Millennial voters will turn out for Democrats now that the 44th president will no longer be on the ballot.   

One clue (h/t Paul Waldman at the Washington Post) is provided by a new Reuters analysis of recent polling on party identification. Here are the most important numbers:

- Among Hispanics who are likely presidential voters, the percentage affiliated with the Republican Party has slipped nearly five points, from 30.6 percent in 2012 to 26 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, Hispanic Democrats grew by six percentage points to 59.6 percent.

- Among whites under 40, the shift is even more dramatic. In 2012, they were more likely to identify with the Republican Party by about 5 percentage points. In 2015, the advantage flipped: Young whites are now more likely to identify with the Democratic Party by about 8 percentage points.

- Meanwhile, black likely voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic, at about 80 percent.

Overall, the study shows, the Democratic margin in party ID has grown from 6 percent in 2012 to 9 percent this year. 

These numbers should obviously not be taken at face value. For one thing, self-identification is not an infallible indication of voting behavior. For another, Republicans have recently been winning self-identified independents in competitive races. And for still another, there are obviously people who don’t vote for, or actually vote against, “their” party’s presidential nominee, though such cross-party voters have been declining in numbers rapidly of late. 

The central question is whether the stability of the Obama coalition is attributable to what Democrats are doing to keep them happy or what Republicans are doing to repulse them, for all the GOP’s protestations of inclusiveness. If the latter is the case, Republicans might want to nominate a candidate (e.g., the relatively young Hispanic candidate Marco Rubio) with a fighting chance of mitigating the damage. If the former is the case, it would seem the theory that Obama and only Obama can keep “his” coalition together might be wrong, and Republicans have a bigger problem than the precise identity of their nominee. 

Many Republicans would protest that even if Reuters’s numbers are accurate, they measure preferences, not enthusiasm, which will tilt results in their direction. I would observe that the numbers are based on Reuters/Ipsos polls of likely voters, so to some extent "enthusiasm" is baked right into them. Now, if Ted Cruz’s claim that 54 million conservative Evangelicals "sat out" 2012 and are waiting for someone just like him to vote for is somehow true, then such hordes of new voters would obviously outweigh any current voter ID advantage Democrats might have. On the other hand, if the Cruz theory is true, we are far, far beyond the realm of empirical evidence and rational argument, and perhaps the donkey party can mobilize elves and wood-sprites to offset the aroused Evangelicals. 

Back here on planet Earth, the Reuters analysis should be taken to heart by activists in both parties who realize demographics aren’t everything, but they are probably more important than who’s winning the news cycle today.