It was 19th century French philosopher August Comte who once famously said that “demography is destiny,” which I have long considered a truism in American politics as well as in sociology and economics.
Accordingly, I have endeavored over the years to base my political predictions on the prevailing political demographics rather than on my own prejudices. In other words, I try to bet with my head, not my heart.
But, of course, political demography is a tricky subject. Political coalitions are constantly shifting as economic and social conditions change — and as new media allow anyone with a computer to become a pundit or a political organizer.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg has a PROVOCATIVE COLUMN today in which he ponders the daunting challenge facing the Democratic Party in the 2012 election cycle in light of shifting political demographics:
Just four or five decades ago, Democratic strategists could count on an army of working-class voters and union members to turn out to support the party’s nominees, tapping on a deep party loyalty that developed out of the Great Depression. While WASPs and the rich hated President Franklin Roosevelt, that animosity didn’t drive American politics.
But over the past few decades the New Deal generation passed away, President Ronald Reagan transformed our politics, the union movement shrunk noticeably, white voters as a percentage of the total electorate dropped significantly and both economic and social issues evolved.
How those changes have affected our politics becomes stunningly clear after talking to Democratic operatives and strategists, who see their best opportunities in 2012 as centering on states and Congressional districts populated by Hispanics, African-Americans, upscale white liberals, suburban voters and the young.
Even after Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s narrow victory in West Virginia last week, Democratic strategists seem to acknowledge that their party has lost downscale white voters — particularly those in rural areas — for 2012.
President Barack Obama, of course, did relatively poorly with those voters in the 2008 Democratic primary race against Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he continued to underperform with those same voters in the general election.
Democratic insiders suggest that the fight for the House will rest in suburban districts, including Republican-held seats in the Philadelphia, Chicago and New York suburbs, where the president may be more popular and a wide range of issues may benefit Democratic candidates.
It’s true, of course, that suburban voters, once a GOP bulwark, have become more independent recently, and in some areas even reliably Democratic.
But even if upscale suburban voters care more about women’s and environmental issues and gay rights, and are willing to pay higher taxes than are more rural, downscale or exurban voters, it’s far from clear that suburbanites will show the Democratic bent in 2012 that they did in 2008. They too may punish the president for the economy.