August has been a cruel month for Barack Obama. His poll numbers have dropped; independents are slipping away; Democrats are discouraged by his lack of audacity on issues ranging from a public option in health care, to his tardiness on reversing the ban on gays in the military and ending the Defense of Marriage Act; and Republicans, who were never really with him in the first place, have signaled their undying opposition to virtually anything he proposes. The so-called "Obama slide" (to use David Brooks's terminology) is real, and a skeptical public is having second thoughts about their 44th President.
Fair enough. But all slides have an end point. And Obama's slide may be a shorter than many believe. Lost in much of the commentary is the fact that the political demography of the U.S. has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, the "real majority" of the American electorate had been memorably defined by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg as being "un-young, un-poor, and un-black." Put another way, most Americans were white, married, middle-aged with modest incomes, and resided in the suburbs. These groups constituted the heart of the Republican majority that twice elected Reagan and the two George Bushes. Today, many of these same voters are voicing their skepticism about Obama's job performance. The Gallup poll, for example, finds only 43% of whites approve of Obama's handling of the presidency. Seniors, in particular, have never been enamored with Obama, and many are fearful of any changes he proposes to their healthcare. Not surprisingly, only 42% of them give Obama a thumbs-up.
But is Obama in deep trouble? Not as much as people think thanks to changing demographics. In the Reagan landslides of 1984, whites constituted nearly nine-of-ten voters. But in 2008, they were only 74% -- the smallest percentage in the history of exit polling. By 2012 and in the subsequent presidential elections to come, the percentage of white voters will decline even further. The U.S. Census Bureau continues to project that whites will be a minority of the entire U.S. population by the middle of the twenty-first century.
As whites decline, non-whites assume greater importance at the polls. To take but one example: Hispanics were just 1% of the electorate in 1980, but by 2008 they were 9%. The Hispanic voting percentage will continue to balloon as they are expected to constitute 29% of the total U.S. population by 2030. Other non-whites -- including blacks, Asians, and those of mixed racial heritage -- have also seen their influence grow. In 2008, blacks constituted 13% of the vote while Asians and non-whites totaled 5%.
These groups gave Barack Obama an easy victory over John McCain. Blacks awarded 95% of their votes to Obama; Hispanics, 67%; Asians, 62%; non-whites, 66%-this even as whites gave Obama a paltry 43% of their votes. Non-whites are still in Obama's corner. The Gallup Poll reports, for example, that 86% of blacks and 67% of Hispanics approve of his job performance. One reason Hispanics, in particular, still like Obama is his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court -- a nomination that garnered only one Republican vote from the Senate Judiciary Committee (Lindsay Graham) and just nine Republican votes on the Senate floor.
Young people also bear watching as they are harbingers of our collective political futures. In 1932 and 1936, first-time voters rejected the Republican party and gave Franklin D. Roosevelt such overwhelming support that it powered the New Deal coalition until it began running out of steam in the 1970s. Likewise, young voters backed Ronald Reagan and his prescription for less government in 1984, giving his coalition an extra boost and helping the two George Bushes win the White House. Something similar happened in 2008 when eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds gave Obama 66% of their votes. Young voters are still in Obama's corner, as 62% approve of his job performance according to Gallup. The racial transformation of the U.S. is particularly evident among the nation's youth which further predisposes them toward supporting Obama and the Democrats. According to the Census Bureau, 70% of the population increase among children aged five-years-old and younger is Hispanic.
Republicans have stubbornly refused to recognize this new demography, preferring instead to fondly remember the old real majorities of the Reagan era. This is a prescription for losing the presidency, even though the GOP can make short-term gains when Democrats overreach, become involved in political scandal, or offer flawed candidates. Republicans may also do well in off-year elections (like 2010) when the old real majority can still retain its clout. Democrats faced a similar problem during the Reagan years when they recognized the un-young, un-poor, and un-black demographic was skewed against them. Eventually, old-style New Deal Democrats turned themselves into New Democrats who cast themselves as vigilant watchdogs over taxpayer dollars and whose first instinct was not to propose big government solutions to the country's problems.
Until there are New Republicans who cast a more friendly eye toward young people byrecognizing the premium they place on the value of social tolerance, and until these same NewRepublicans come to believe that immigrants can be "one of us," the GOP will remain in the Democrats shadow. An old rule of politics still holds true: Demography is Destiny. And ourcollective political destiny suggests that Barack Obama's slide may be a short one.
John Kenneth White is a Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America and is theauthor of Barack Obama's America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and ReligionEnded the Reagan Era published by the University of Michigan Press, 2009.