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Forget 2016. The Pivotal Year In Politics May Be 2020

Latino voters, shown here on Election Day in Los Angeles, will grow in electoral power by the year 2020.
David McNew
Getty Images
Latino voters, shown here on Election Day in Los Angeles, will grow in electoral power by the year 2020.

Now that President Obama is ensconced in his second term, speculation about the future of American politics is wildfire-ish.

In a post-inaugural story, the Associated Press reports that the name of Democratic Vice President Biden "has surfaced as a potential presidential candidate in 2016." Politico says Biden is intoxicated by the prospect.

Research data released in mid-January by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling show that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "would be extremely difficult to beat in the Democratic primary and in the general election."

On the Republican side, the same PPP poll asserts that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "would be Clinton's most threatening opponent." Other Republicans mentioned in the survey include Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, both of Florida, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

For all the folderol and fanciful talk swirling around 2016, the real sea change in national politics may come in the following election — when the nation will be undergoing an even more monumental makeover in its demographic composition.

When it comes to American presidential politics, foresight is 2020.

The Changing Complexion Of America

The demographic makeup of the United States will shift dramatically in the next eight years.

Paul Taylor, director of the Social & Demographic Trends project at the Pew Research Center in Washington, says the country is on a trajectory to become a majority nonwhite nation by the early 2040s. Today it's 63 percent white; by 2020 it will be about 60 percent white.

"These aren't loose predictions," Taylor says. It's the "future we already know."

The forecasts made by Taylor are based on immigration trends, birthrates and mortality rates. "As the complexion of the population changes," he says, "so too will the complexion of the electorate. In 2012 it was 28 percent nonwhite, a record. By 2020 it will be more than 30 percent nonwhite."

He cites several recent surveys by Pew, including one report predicting that the minority groups that helped elect President Obama in 2012 will become a majority of the American population by 2050 and another showing that the record number of Latinos who voted in the 2012 presidential election will probably double within the next generation.

Such data matter "because our voting patterns are highly aligned by race," Taylor says.

For example, he points out that in 2012, Obama won 80 percent of the nonwhite vote but just 39 percent of the white vote. Fact is, Obama lost the white vote by the identical margin — 20 percentage points – as Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Back in 1988, Taylor explains, "a defeat of that magnitude among whites meant that Dukakis suffered an Electoral College drubbing of 426-111. This year, it yielded Obama an Electoral College victory of 332-206. In short, whites mustered 220 fewer Electoral College votes' worth of clout in 2012 than in 1988."

All of this, Taylor adds, "clearly puts the Republican Party on the wrong side of demographic change."

In other words, the Democratic Party's tide is rising and blue waters are washing over more and more red states.

As key electoral states such as California, Florida and New York become more solidly blue, Democrats will need to spend less money on advertising in those states and can focus on the tossup, purplish states such as Arizona, North Carolina and even Texas.

Generally speaking, says Ferrel Guillory, a political historian and director of The Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina, "Hispanics in aggregate clearly lean Democratic. If Democrats sustain that support over this decade, the demographic trends point favorably toward Democratic gains by 2020."

Dawn Of A New Age

The face of the country is changing; so is the age.

According to a 2009 study by the Center for American Progress: "In 2020 — the first presidential election where all Millennials will have reached voting age — this generation will be 103 million strong, of which about 90 million will be eligible voters. Those 90 million Millennial eligible voters will represent just under 40 percent of America's eligible voters."

Guillory points to another 2009 study, from the Pew Research Center, showing that some 22 percent of all people under the age of 18 in the United States are Hispanic. That number is up considerably from 9 percent in 1980.

The Pew study also reveals that most of the nation's 16 million Hispanic children (52 percent) are now considered "second generation," meaning they were born in the United States and have at least one parent who was born in anther country. "Typically," the study explains, the parents "came to this country in the immigration wave from Mexico, Central America and South America that began around 1980."

Only 11 percent of Latino children, the study states, are "first generation" — meaning they were born in another country. But some 37 percent are at least "third generation" — meaning they are U.S.-born children of parents who also were born in the United States.

What does this mean for the 2020 election? As the lives of the people behind those statistics unfold, Guillory says, the ramifications could be significant. "Consider that a 15-year-old Hispanic high school sophomore will be a 22- or 23-year-old young adult in 2020," he says. "That sophomore — and most of his or her peers — will have gone through U.S. education: public schools, and hopefully community college or university."

This emerging Hispanic cohort will form a larger share of registered voters than its parents form now, Guillory says. "In certain battleground states, including North Carolina and Virginia, that will shift Hispanic voters from ... to use my old high school physics terminology ... from potential power-energy to actual power-energy."

That power-energy, Guillory says, will vary from state to state. Hispanic voters are already influential in California, where for years Democrats and Republicans have been vying for their support.

Around the rest of the country, the competition is intensifying. The growing interest in Spanish-speaking voters (Hispanocrats ... Hispanblicans?) was borne out in the 2012 nominating conventions. Rubio introduced Mitt Romney at the Republican gathering in Tampa, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was a keynote speaker at the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

The Republican Response

If the numbers hold, by 2020 Hispanic voters will represent at least 15 percent of the overall vote, says Spencer Kimball, a Republican strategist who teaches communication studies at Emerson College. And according to 2012 exit polls, more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters cast their ballots for President Obama.

To counter this tidal wave of potential Democratic gains, Republicans will have to make adjustments, Kimball says. He believes that Republicans will focus on immigration policies "to soften their appearance in light of this growing constituency."

He looks for Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana to play a bigger role in appealing to Hispanic voters.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has a history of courting the Hispanic vote, Kimball says, "but with the Bush family legacy being left undefended since 2008, he will first have to restore the family's image."

Any promising candidate, Republican or Democrat, will have promises to keep — to Hispanic voters and to younger voters.

The Republicans were on the right track under the leadership of George W. Bush, says Kimball, with the 2005 appointment of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general and Bush's outreach programs to attract the Hispanic vote in 2000 and 2004.

But, Kimball says, "that goodwill has been lost in the last five years." And the Democrats have gained ground, especially with Hispanic-friendly moves such as Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court in 2009.

A Complex Portrait

Such partisan trends are not set in concrete, however. Economic upheaval, a solution to the jobs-creation problem or some unforeseen force could move large numbers of nonwhite voters onto the Republican rolls.

Taylor of Pew says, "The nation's racial makeup is much more complex now than in the past. It is a multicolored mosaic which includes Hispanics and Asians as well as blacks and whites."

For years, Republicans have been saying these newer, immigration-driven racial and ethnic groups, with their conservative family values and deep belief in free enterprise, are a natural part of their base, Taylor says, recalling that Ronald Reagan once described Hispanics as "Republicans who don't know it yet."

A generation later, Taylor says, "they still don't. Nor do Asians. Whether they make this 'discovery' in the next eight years, or whether it turns out that Reagan simply misjudged the partisan preferences of these new groups, will go a long way toward determining the political landscape of 2020."

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.