By JONATHAN TILOVE
November 10, 2004
c.2004 Newhouse News Service
(WASHINGTON) Election Day 2004 threw a bucket of cold water on Democratic hopes that America’s changing demographics would necessarily improve their future prospects.
Exit polls indicate the Bush campaign increased its share of the white vote even as it expanded its appeal to minorities, especially Hispanics. And there were decisive Republican victories in the bubbling multiculture of Florida and in increasingly diverse Nevada, not to mention a narrow win in heavily Hispanic New Mexico.
Until Nov. 2, Democrats had viewed the nation’s growing diversity as their ace in the hole: As America became less white, they reasoned, the party’s fortunes would brighten as certainly as day follows night. After all, high immigration and racial turnover had made California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey the bedrock of Blue America.
Republicans would face a dilemma, the Democrats believed: Either drive up their white numbers or make inroads with minorities _ and risk alienating one group or the other whichever way they turned.
But this year, exit polls suggest, President Bush scored big gains with whites and made stunning progress with Latinos, using a consistent message of conservative faith and values and patriotism in wartime.
According to the National Election Pool exit poll, Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, up nine points from 2000. The Los Angeles Times exit poll gave him 45 percent of the Hispanic vote.
The two polls also showed Bush improving a point or two on his rock-bottom performance of 9 percent with black voters four years ago. The trend among Asians _ who backed Sen. John Kerry with between 56 percent and 64 percent of their vote, depending on the poll _ was muddled because of their small numbers.
But with the exception of the loss in New Mexico, it does not appear the Democrats paid too dearly for their eroding margin with Latinos. And it remains true that Democrats do a lot better with voters who are not white; their losses among white voters, analysts say, are what did them in this year.
“There was a little bit of a Hispanic shift and a great big whopping serving of white shift,” said Ruy Teixeira, who studies polling and political behavior for the Century Foundation and The Emerging Democratic Majority.
Teixeira’s preliminary analysis found Bush increasing his share of the white vote to 58 percent from 54 percent, with big gains among women and the working class, the latter once the cornerstone of the Democrats’ New Deal coalition.
“Republicans are still the white people’s party,” Teixeira said, adding that as the country changes, the GOP indeed will need increasing percentages of the white vote to prevail.
Between 2000 and 2004, the white share of the electorate declined from 81 percent to 77 percent as the black, Latino and “other” shares grew.
But whites were a greater proportion of voters in battleground states. And their share of voters across America was 9 percentage points greater than their share of the nation’s population.
It is what demographer William Frey of the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution calls the “white voter advantage.”
In years to come, Frey said, the white voter advantage will shrink, and the Latino vote especially will grow, through immigration and the coming of age of a generation of U.S.-born children of immigrants.
What this election signals is that Republicans are working hard to stay ahead of the demographic curve, and that they are now fighting on friendlier terrain.
Like whites _ but unlike blacks _ Hispanic voters tend to take on the color of their political environment, according to Columbia University political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza. That helps explain why Bush won the Hispanic vote in the increasingly one-party South, and showed progress in the traditionally Republican Southwest.
“The Southwest is the new Ellis Island,” said Frank Guerra, a San Antonio advertising executive whose firm handled Hispanic media for the Bush campaign nationally. To the extent that Hispanics are being politically acculturated in Red America, Guerra said, Republicans benefit.
Guerra also sees a changing Hispanic self-image: If the Democrats present themselves as the “champions of the people” and the Republicans as “the guardians of the American dream,” this year’s results suggest that more and more, “we’re less about needing help and more about seizing opportunity.”
Bush’s national gains among Hispanics were in some measure primed by a 16-point surge _ to 59 percent _ in his home state of Texas.
De le Garza and other careful observers of Latino voting habits and Texas politics found those results hard to believe, given that Kerry swept most of the heavily Hispanic counties along the Mexican border, albeit by smaller margins than past Democrats. They cautioned that the national exit polls may have exaggerated Republican gains (they contradicted all the pre-election polling), though Guerra counters that this analysis fails to note how much Hispanics in Texas have dispersed into the suburbs and exurbs.
Still, Democrats continued to win the Hispanic vote where it was most contested, if sometimes by a diminished margin. Even Republicans were ready to acknowledge that Bush’s victory was more personal than necessarily permanent.
“I tell people that we got 45 percent of the vote, but we don’t own 45 percent of the vote,” Guerra said.
Alvaro Cifuentes, who chairs the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Caucus, agreed. “This constituency does not have a common history or theme to rally around; this is a community that’s up for grabs,” he said. “It votes more on likability and trust than it does ideas.”
Many Hispanics, Cifuentes said, simply liked Bush.
Depending on whose numbers you trust, Kerry did either a little better or a little worse with Hispanics in Florida than Vice President Al Gore did in 2000. Either way, said Frey, the demographer, the huge influx of new white voters to that state had more to do with Bush’s win.
In Colorado, Democrats held Republicans to 30 percent of the Hispanic vote, though they benefited there from the Senate candidacy of Ken Salazar. (Salazar and Florida Republican Mel Martinez will be the Senate’s first Hispanics in more than 25 years.)
In Arizona, Bush improved his Hispanic numbers nine points, to 43 percent, expanding his statewide margin to 11 percent from 6 percent.
In Nevada, Democrats pinned their hopes on a huge migration of new voters, especially from California. Nevada now has a larger percentage of Hispanics than Florida, and a larger percentage of Asians than any state save Hawaii and California. But Bush won Nevada again, by the same three-point margin as four years ago. In the process, he captured 39 percent of the Hispanic vote and narrowly carried Asians.
The toughest loss for the Democrats was New Mexico, which is 45 percent Hispanic and where Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic and has national ambitions, led the Kerry effort.
This time Bush won a very close election _ even though he got a slightly lower percentage of New Mexico’s white vote than in 2000 _ by increasing his share of the Hispanic vote 12 points, to 44 percent.
It was hard evidence that favorable demographics alone cannot win it for the Democrats.
“That’s the lesson to be learned, and it’s good for them,” said University of New Mexico political scientist F. Chris Garcia.