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If demographics are destiny, the winner is…

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Peter A. Brown
January 19, 2008

“Demographics are destiny” may be a bromide, but it offers serious insight into the campaigns for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations because of the clues it provides to the outcome of the races.


Viewing the chances of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee through that prism might tell us a good deal about who will win and who will lose the nominations.


Let’s begin with the widespread amazement that Obama, who is black, did so well in lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire. But the key question is whether that means that when he gets to states with larger black populations, he will perform even better overall.


Perhaps yes, but what limited history we have about black presidential candidates argues otherwise. Now, it goes without saying that there are vast differences between Obama’s candidacy and that of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. Yet there is a lesson from those days that is worth remembering: Jackson did best in heavily white states and those with very large black populations—the northern tier of the country and the Deep South. But in the rest of the United States, his support was weaker.


That was, of course, a result of the very real tensions that existed between the races in many states, especially where blacks represented 15 percent, the same amount they represented at the national level.


In other words, Jackson did best in states such as Vermont, Oregon and Wisconsin because there was little white backlash from voters. Or, in places where blacks were such a large part of the electorate—Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana—that they themselves constitute a big chunk of the Democratic primary voters.


If this pattern holds for Obama, he may face problems in states such as Florida, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas. Those are states with large numbers of convention delegates and where the black population is not large enough to make him a winner but sizable enough that there are significant racial tensions.


We can see signs of this in a new Quinnipiac University poll of Florida, where Obama, despite his Iowa win and strong showing in New Hampshire, still trails Clinton 52 percent to 31 percent, or the new CNN national poll, in which he trails her 49 percent to 36 percent.


Clinton, on the other hand, is likely to retain her demographic edge as we move through the primaries. That’s because the proportion of the Democratic electorate that is female is likely to be more than the 55 percent it has been so far.


It was an outpouring of female voters that provided her surprise New Hampshire win.


The key demographic in Huckabee’s case is the percentage of evangelical Christians in the Republican electorate. He won the Iowa caucuses largely on their ballots, but Iowa is something of an anomaly.


Iowa does not have, by any means, the largest proportion of evangelicals in the country, although 60 percent of caucus-goers fell into that category. The reason they constituted 60 percent of the electorate was that Iowa held a caucus, and overall turnout was lower than it would have been for a primary.


A number of states, especially in the South and Southwest, have a larger proportion of evangelicals than Iowa. But for the most part, the states hold primaries, in which those votes will be diluted by a larger overall turnout.


It is worth noting that, just as the Jackson model may tell us something about Obama’s campaign, Pat Robertson’s 1988 run for the GOP nomination provides some comparison to Huckabee.


There is, of course, an obvious difference—Robertson was a religious figure, while Huckabee is a politician—but their evangelical bases are similar. In fact, Huckabee’s showing in Iowa was very similar to Robertson’s when he ran. Once Robertson began entering primaries, the clout of his base declined.


McCain’s demographic edge has been among independent voters, who in most states are not allowed to vote in party primaries. But they were able to in New Hampshire and Michigan. As the primary calendar continues, most, but not all, of the states limit participation to Republicans.


It’s possible that all these patterns may not turn out to be the case. And it’s certainly politically correct to scoff at the notion that demographics are controlling.


The problem with that view, however, is that cliches exist for a reason.


Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute; his e-mail address is peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu. This article first appeared on Politico.com.

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