Ruy Teixeira is a political demographer who is best known as the co-author (with John Judis) of a much-discussed — and much-misunderstood — 2002 book entitled The Emerging Democratic Majority. This book provided a very good overview of the coalition (later often called the Obama Coalition) that was forming thanks to an increasingly more diverse population and the growing attachment of well-educated white voters to the Democratic Party. It was misinterpreted on occasion as telling Democrats they no longer had to reach out to persuadable voters because demographics would take care of all their problems. Understandably, Teixeira tends to be very careful about avoiding that impression. So the major new study that he and Center for American Progress colleague John Halpin have just published about electoral trends going into 2020 provides a lot of different scenarios for what might move the country and the Electoral College in one direction or the other.
But the study does document that slow but steady demographic trends really might matter at the margins in 2020:
[U]nder a scenario where nothing changes between 2016 and 2020 except the relative sizes of the demographic groups making up the eligible electorate, we find that the Democratic candidate would win the popular vote by a larger margin: 3.2 percentage points. This result holds constant the turnout levels and voter preferences of demographic groups between the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 percent in 2016. But she obviously lost the Electoral College. What would demographic change mean in key states? An awful lot, as you might expect, given how close some of them were in 2016:
Under the scenario where turnout and voter preferences by demographic group remain the same as in 2016, and only the underlying demographic structure of the eligible electorate changes in 2020, the Democratic candidate would take back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to carry the Electoral College by 279 votes to 259 votes.
That’s crazy close, but at least in this scenario the Electoral College would be in alignment with the popular vote, as used to be common (there were no disconnects between the two results from 1892 through 1996 — but there have been two in the last five elections).
Teixeira and Halpin have other scenarios where, plausibly, Donald Trump loses some vote-share among minorities. These are interesting as well:
If Black turnout returned to its 2012 levels, the Democrat would carry the popular vote by 4 points. If Hispanics, Asians, and voters of other races increased their support for the Democratic candidate across states by 15 margin points (+7.5 for the Democrat; -7.5 for Trump), the Democrat would win the popular vote by 6 points. Roughly the same margin would obtain if the Democratic candidate carried white college graduates by an additional 10 margin points (+5 for the Democrat, -5 for Trump) …
If Black turnout in 2020 matches 2012 levels across states, the Democrat would win the Electoral College by 294-244, adding North Carolina as well. If Hispanics, Asians, and people of other races swing to the Democrats by 15 margin points, the Democratic candidate would win the Electoral College by 319-219, including flipping Florida and Arizona. And if white college-educated voters swing to the Democrats by 10 margin points, the Democrat would carry the Electoral College by 334-204, including flips of Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina.
We obviously don’t know yet if these scenarios are realistic. Some analysts don’t think we’ll soon see a return to the African-American turnout patterns of 2012 even if there is a black candidate at the top of the ticket, because Obama’s historic candidacy cannot be replicated. And a lot of Democrats believe (or at least fear) that a Republican campaign that shrieks “Socialists! Socialists! Socialists!” 24/7 can blunt or reverse the pro-Democratic trend among college-educated suburbanites that we saw in 2018. But at the least it is clear that demographic trends and the president’s eager efforts to offend minority voters and suburbanites might offset any advantage he’s gained from the economy or incumbency. And in a close race, that could be crucial.