12/05/2011 11:39 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2012

The Path to 270

The first votes in the 2012 election are just weeks away from being cast, and the horse race is fully underway. This far out, it's anyone's guess who the GOP nominee will be. But one thing is certain: The nominee and President Barack Obama will face a different electorate than 2008.
The obvious difference is the economy. While there's been slow but steady improvement, the economy has not recovered from the cliff it fell off in late 2008. But perhaps just as important is the demographic shift occurring in key states across the country.

My Center for American Progress colleagues John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira lay these factors out in their paper, "The Path to 270: Demographics vs. Economics in the 2012 election." They acknowledge that the deteriorating state of the economy is a very strong headwind for President Obama, but it might be offset by the growth in numbers of the voters who helped put him into office -- namely, Millennials (defined by Pew as those adults born 1981 or after), people of color, professionals, and women. Halpin and Teixeira call these voters "the rising electorate."

If you're paying close attention to the current political contest, though, it doesn't seem to acknowledge that our nation is changing. Context is everything, and it would appear that the GOP debates are happening in a context all their own.

At a time when this rising electorate is struggling to make ends meet and provide for their families, conservatives seem to be racing to see who can provide more tax cuts to the 1 percent while closing off our borders and criminalizing the undocumented. Anti-immigration rhetoric during the debates gets the loudest applause lines, while anyone showing a sliver of sympathy to the plight of the undocumented gets pilloried.

The reality is that in key states such as Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona, the fastest-growing population is Hispanics. And in what Halpin and Teixeira call the New South swing states (Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia) the population is growing rapidly, fueled mostly by their minority communities. In 2012, these states are projected to have a minority voting population of 31 percent. And in other states across the country you find more and more examples of a changing, more diverse electorate.
Some in the media want to make this an "either/or" proposition. Either you go after this rising electorate, or you ignore it and focus on white working-class voters and vice versa. This may make for interesting news articles and get more eyeballs on a website, but it is a false choice.

Clichés about governing the entire country aside, there is no way for either party to win without appealing to some portion of each population, in the same way that policies that benefit the "99 percent" benefit all Americans, not just one particular class or race. What varies is the percentage needed in each state to win. But that in no way advocates for writing one group of voters off for another.

There's no way to ignore these changes. According to Census projections, in 2050 this nation will be a majority minority country, and there will be no ethnic majority. In some parts of the country, that has already happened. And given the birth rates of various populations, even if we somehow closed all the borders today, this demographic shift will still occur.

While it would be nice, I don't expect any of the presidential candidates including Obama to address this head on. But like it or not, they will get a taste of the future as they campaign across the country. What remains to be seen is how these new emerging communities will respond to the rhetoric they've been hearing.