Are you Demographic?
8 November, 2012
As a sometime demographer myself, I am fascinated by the prominence of
"demographics" as an explanatory concept in the recent presidential
election, now already slipping away into hazy memory. Recent political
journalism would barely stand without this conceptual crutch, as here and here and here. A bit more nuance here. Some pushback from the NY Times here.
The crassest expression of this concept came in an article
yesterday by (formerly?) respected conservative journalist Michael
Barone, explaining why he was no longer confident that Mitt Romney
would win the election by a large margin. Recall that several days
before the election, despite the contrary evidence of what tens of
thousands of voters were actually telling pollsters, he predicted
315 electoral votes for Romney, saying "Fundamentals usually prevail in
American elections. That's bad news for Barack Obama." In retrospect,
I was wrong because the outcome of the
election was not determined, as I thought it would be, by
fundamentals.... I think fundamentals were trumped by mechanics and, to
a lesser extent, by demographics.
Put aside mechanics (which presumably means, as Buce has commented (read by me via Brad DeLong),
that the Democrats were better at turning out the vote than the
Republicans were at suppressing it). What does it mean to say the
election was determined by "demographics"? Well, let's start by asking
what "fundamentals" are? According to Barone, one fundamental (the only
that helped Obama) is that Americans believe in affirmative action for
presidents or, as he puts it, "many, perhaps most, Americans believe it
would be a bad thing for Americans to be seen as rejecting the first
black president." Otherwise, he's talking mainly about the state of the
economy, which most people would agree is "unsatisfactory". Whose fault
is the state of the economy? We could argue about that, and there's a
very good case to be made for saying it's no one's fault, this is like
saying "Whose fault is the weather?" But when Barone and others talk
about "fundamentals", they seem to be ventriloquizing a certain line of
political science research, not entirely persuasive, that says that
Americans base their vote for president almost entirely on the state of
the economy (however that is best measured), and that they hold the
president responsible for the state of the economy, regardless of
objective evidence to the contrary.
What about demographics? Well, it turns out that some people don't
actually care only about the state of the job market. Some people care
about access to abortion or health services, or about marriage rights,
or about immigration, or about anti-poverty programs, or about
investment in schools or public transport. Sorry, did I say people? I
meant some demographic groups. Because these aren't really "people" in
the traditional sense. Many of them are women, or homosexuals, or
Hispanic, or African-Americans. And whereas Americans -- white men,
that is -- vote based on fundamentals (meaning the recent change in
their disposable income, regardless of what actual policies might be
responsible for it), demographic groups seem to all vote for the
Democrats for all kinds of weird patronage reasons.
This was put even more starkly in an already-infamous article by journalists Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen from November 4:
If President Barack Obama wins, he will
be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and
highly educated urban whites. That's what the polling has consistently
shown in the final days of the campaign. It looks more likely than not
that he will lose independents, and it's possible he will get a lower
percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters
A broad mandate this is not.
One is surprised that the Constitution even allows these Demographic-Americans to vote. What's the point?