Lies, Damned Lies and Demographics

Demographics could be turned on their head in the 2016 presidential election by an unconventional candidate with unpredictable appeal in “flippable” states that could determine who wins in November.

Demographics could be turned on their head in the 2016 presidential election by an unconventional candidate with unpredictable appeal in “flippable” states that could determine who wins in November.

Demographics are just statistics with faces. But demographics are also statistics influenced by non-quantitative facts, such as political passion.

In presidential elections, demographics draw a lot of attention. This year is no exception, though some of the usual demographic lines have been scrambled, in large part because of the insurgent “outsider” campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Trump has attracted strong support from white men, including union workers in Rust Belt states, and evangelicals, despite a lack of credentials on dealing with social issues. Sanders’ “political revolution" appealed to many young voters, but it also revived the interest of older voters who had dropped off of the political map. Hillary Clinton, who has strong appeal for women voters, has managed to gather as strong or stronger support from African-Americans and Latinos than Barack Obama in 2008.

Despite high negative ratings and demographic predictions that Republican presidential prospects this year were circling the drain, Trump emerged from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week with a slight lead over Clinton.

According to fivethirtyeight.com, Republican presidential nominees do best among white voters without college degrees. But this demographic cohort is aging and declining by about 3 percent every four years. Meanwhile, whites with a college degree, who lean Republican but do cross over, are increasing by 1 or more percentage points every four years.

“In other words, Democrats’ coalition of non-white, young and well-educated voters continues to expand every election, while Republicans’ coalition of white, older and less-educated voters keeps shrinking,” said David Wasserman, writing for fivethirtyeight.com. "It’s no wonder Democrats have an emerging ‘stranglehold on the Electoral College’ because of favorable trends in states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia.”

However, that stranglehold seems a little limp in this election cycle. 

Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, says demographics don’t favor Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as strongly as some might imagine.

Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, says demographics don’t favor Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as strongly as some might imagine.

Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, says just a small percentage shift in voting could flip Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin to the GOP in 2016, providing enough electoral votes to capture the presidency.

Trump is stretching traditional demographic line by pushing his opposition to trade deals and a law and order agenda that hold appeal for disaffected voters in the Rust Belt and Middle America.

Of those states Silver identifies as “flippable," Sanders outpolled Clinton in Colorado, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Sanders and Clinton were virtually tied in Iowa and Sanders came close to winning Michigan, another Rust Belt state with a lot of blue-collar union voters. A contributing factor in Sanders’ success was his opposition to trade deals, which he said left many American workers in the lurch.

The Clinton campaign is working hard at the Democratic National Convention this week to woo Sanders’ supporters. But Silver says it may be a fool’s errand because many Sanders’ supporters are new or irregular voters who may not even vote in November. He also says some Sanders’ voters are politically independent and “ticket-splitters."

The upshot is Clinton may be forced to hustle to retain union voters from Trump and Sanders supporters from a third-party candidate like Jill Stein of the Green Party.

Another demographic down note for Clinton is that her commanding lead among Latino voters may be deceiving in terms of its impact on the Electoral College. Silver says Latino votes are concentrated in states such as California, New York and Texas that aren’t in play. That is changing as Latino populations increase across the nation, which have led some to suggest that predictably red states like Arizona could become purple. However, the change may not occur this year.

Some of Clinton’s strongest support in the primary came in Southern states where African-American votes dominated Democratic voting. Normally they wouldn’t turn Red states blue, but conservative voters upset with Trump could produce surprises in states such as North Carolina and George, where polls show Trump even with Clinton. Another election-day surprise could be Utah, dominated by Mormons who are offended by Trump’s politics. Clinton is holding her own there, too.