Why voter demographics are the key to the White House

By Bryan Cranston

This article is the second of a two-part feature, which aims to provide an understanding of the US presidential election process.

The first article of this two-part feature, Predicting the Outcome of 2016 US Presidential Election, examined the Electoral College, and the use of probability to reasonably predict which party will win the presidency. This second article will examine the role of voter behaviour and electoral demographics to understand why the Democratic Party is favoured to win a majority of the ‘toss-up’ states, and just who the major-party presidential candidates will be.

Forecasting election results requires analysing historical voter trends, and applying elements of probability to electoral trends. One of the fastest growing Election Day trends is exit polling, where voters are surveyed as they exit the voting booth and asked to identify how they voted, along with identifying demographic factors such as ethnicity, age, annual income, and highest level of education. Although Gallup has undertaken exit polling since 1952, exit polls have only really been widely engaged since 2000.

Table 1 is a summary of exit poll data undertaken by The New York Times over the past three presidential elections.

Table 1 – Summary of NY Times Exit Poll data – US presidential elections 2004, 2008 and 2012

Table 1

Why the “War-on-Women” Matters

Democrats have consistently won the women’s vote with an average margin of 53-47%. This demographic is extremely important, as women currently comprise 53% of the electorate. The Republican Party tried to bridge this gender divide in 2008 by nominating then-Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, for vice president. Ironically, Palin’s much-deprecated candidacy actually resulted in a decline in the Republican female vote, from 48% in 2004 to 43% in 2008, rising slightly to 44% in 2012. The Republican Party has spent much of the past four years arguing that they are not waging a ‘war-on-women’, as this is one of the key demographics that they must start making positive inroads if they are to have any chance at winning future presidential elections.

An examination of the generalised voting patterns of the four major ethnicities in the United States – white, black, Hispanic and Asian – over the past three elections reveals that only one (white) votes Republican, with all others consistently voting Democrat, in significant majorities. The average Democratic vote percentage for each of the four ethnic groups is White 41%, Black 92%, Hispanic 64%, and Asian 64%.

Again, the problem for the Republican Party is two-fold: white voters, as a proportion of total population, are declining, whilst Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group, who vote Democrat two-thirds of the time.

This recent two-fold issue is having a major impact on presidential elections, and does not bode well for the short-medium term future of the Republican Party.

Example 1 – California

Prior to the 1992 presidential election, California was a ‘safe’ Republican state, but the Republican Party is no longer remotely competitive there. Democrats currently hold every statewide office (eg governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, both US senate seats, etc), both houses of the state legislature, and 39 of the state’s 53 congressional seats. Since 1992, California has voted for the Democratic presidential election in every one of the past six elections. The 2016 Republican presidential nominee will not actively campaign in California, as the state’s media market is exorbitantly expensive, and there is no value in spending millions of dollars in a state they have absolutely no chance of winning.

The reason for this dramatic and sudden political shift is the rapid rise in California’s Hispanic population. In fact, in 2014, California became only the second state (after New Mexico) in the US where ‘white’ is no longer the largest ethnic group, with Hispanics now comprising 39% of the population.

Example 2 – New Mexico

In many ways, New Mexico mirrors California in that prior to the 1992 presidential election it had voted had voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1968, thus earning the moniker of a ‘safe’ Republican state. Since 1992 though, the Democratic candidate has won it in five of the past six elections.

Figure 1 shows the population by ethnic group of a number of key states; demonstrating that as that the white vote decreases as a proportion of a state’s population, that state then trends favourably to the Democratic Party.

Figure 1 – Racial/Ethnic Population for Selected States (Source: Pew Research Centre)

Figure 1

In the first article, Predicting the Outcome of 2016 US Presidential Election, I identified five ‘toss-up’ states that will determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia.

Colorado and Nevada

The past two presidential elections saw the Hispanic wave reach Colorado and Nevada. Like California and New Mexico, prior to 1992, Nevada was a ‘safe’ Republican state, but it has now voted Democrat in four of the past six presidential elections. Due to its geographical location, Colorado has been the most recent state to experience the political shift. Prior to 2008, it had only voted for a Democratic presidential candidate once in the past ten elections, but it has voted Democrat for the past two elections in a row. Colorado cannot yet be considered a Democratic state, but it is no longer a Republican state, hence it is true ‘toss-up’ status. However, based on historical trends, it’s more likely than not to follow the path towards ‘likely Democratic support. For example, the 2010 mid-term elections were a nationwide Republican landslide, yet in Colorado, the Democrats still managed to win highly contest races for governor and US senator.

Based on the mathematics of the Electoral College, if the Democratic presidential candidate wins both Colorado and Nevada, then they will win the presidency.


Between 1952 and 2004, the state of Virginia voted for the Democratic presidential candidate just once (in 1964 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory); however, since 2008 it has voted consistently Democrat. This political shift is not due to the Hispanic vote though.

The District of Columbia is the most Democratic region in the country. In 2012, Barack Obama won D.C.’s three Electoral College votes with 91% of the vote. One of the major factors for this is that African-American’s comprise almost 50% of the population, and as shown in Table 1, African-American voters support Democratic presidential candidates at a rate of 92%. Between 2010 and 2014, D.C.’s population grew at a rate of 9.5%, more than three times the national growth rate. This growth is pushing large numbers of D.C. residents’ into the suburbs of northern Virginia, and the result is that Virginia has swung sharply to the Democrats.

Based on the methodology of forecasting Electoral College outcomes in the first article of this two part series, Virginia is rated as ‘toss up’; however, it is heavily favoured once again to vote Democrat in 2016, whereupon it will then move into the ‘likely’ column for 2020.

Florida and Ohio

Although I have rated only five states as technically ‘toss up’, in fact the only states where the result is difficult to forecast are Florida and Ohio. Both of these states favour the Republican Party at presidential elections. Over the past twelve elections, Florida has supported the Republican candidate on eight occasions, and seven in Ohio. The importance of these states is that they are worth 47 Electoral College votes (Florida = 29, Ohio = 18). In 2016 though, the Democratic Party does not need to win either state to win the election, but the Republican Party must win both, plus either Virginia OR Colorado AND Nevada. It is no accident that the 2016 Republican National Convention is being held in Cleveland, Ohio.

Who will be the presidential nominees?

Just as probability modelling can forecast the result of the 2016 presidential election, it can also be used to make reasonable forecasts in predicting who the presidential and vice-presidential candidates will be for each of the major parties.

Hillary Clinton is all but assured to be crowned as the Democratic presidential nominee at their National Convention in Philadelphia, but who will her number-two be? It’s actually a VERY short list. Much like 2008 when Barack Obama selected a middle-class white man to appeal to the broader electorate, Clinton will almost certainly do the same. The heavy favourite at this point is former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley. This helps to explain why he has formally announced his is running for president. Unless the Clinton campaign utterly implodes, O’Malley has no chance at winning the nomination; he is running in order to go through a public vetting process. Pay no attention to his early jabs at Clinton; when Joe Biden ran for president in 2008, he did the same thing to Obama before joining the Democratic ticket. A second name to keep an eye on in veep-stakes is Tim Kaine, current US senator and former governor of Virginia.

Much like Clinton, the Republican National Convention will be a dynastic coronation, where John Elis “Jeb” Bush, son of President George H.W. Bush, and brother of President George W. Bush, will be confirmed as the Party’s presidential nominee.

Jeb Bush has two major factors in his favour. The first is that as a former two-term governor of Florida, he would be favoured to win that state in the Electoral College. The second is that Jeb is married to Columba Bush, a naturalised American born in Mexico. In other words, she is Hispanic. And a woman. Naturally, Jeb’s children are half-Hispanic, and are almost certain to play a major role in his campaign as he seeks to tap into the Hispanic vote. Undoubtedly, Democrats will remind voters that in 1988, then US vice-president George H.W. Bush referred to his grandchildren as, “the little brown ones.”

The last time the Republican Party won the presidency without a Bush or Nixon on the ticket was in 1928. 2008 was the first time since 1972 that a Bush or Dole didn’t appear on the presidential ticket. The message here is clear: Jeb Bush will be the nominee; the real question then is who will be his vice-president? There are few contenders.

Who will be the vice-presidential nominees?

With Bush likely to win Florida, Republican focus will turn to Ohio. Much like Martin O’Malley mentioned earlier, current governor of Ohio John Kasich, recently launched his presidential campaign in order to go through a public vetting. There is another Ohio republican who would be more palatable – Rob Portman – but he is running for re-election to the US Senate in a close race. If he was the vice presidential candidate, his national campaigning would jeopardise his seat, and the Republican majority in the Senate.

The Republican’s need to counter their ‘woman problem’, but are wary of repeating the Palin fiasco. In 2014, Susana Martinez won re-election to a second term as governor of New Mexico. Martinez is a former US attorney, favourite of the TEA Party, Hispanic and a woman. Her name is all but guaranteed to be on the final shortlist of vice presidential candidates, and could quite possible be the nominee. Martinez’ place on the ticket would not change the outcome for New Mexico’s Electoral College vote, but it could help the Party to make inroads into both the women’s and Hispanic vote.

What all this suggests is that there are few surprises in US politics, and even fewer in presidential politics. Look to America’s political history to find a path to its future.

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