Whoever wins the presidency this Election Day, they will be faced with leading a partisan American electorate increasingly divided by race, religion, and other basic demographic measures.
In many ways the two great parties that govern America are like two icebergs slowly floating farther and farther apart. In their makeup they are less alike than at any time in the past quarter-century, notes a new Pew Research Center study. The distance between them is likely to continue to grow in the years ahead.
“The fundamental demographic changes taking place in the country – an aging population, growing racial and ethnic diversity and rising levels of education – have reshaped both party coalitions,” according to Pew’s new Election 2016 report.
And campaign 2016 isn’t helping the nation get ready to handle the inevitable disagreements that will arise from this division. If anything, it is making partisanship worse.
Donald Trump’s “birther” swap on Friday, in which he dropped the lie that President Obama might have been born in Kenya while asserting – falsely – that Hillary Clinton was the first to make that charge, will almost certainly further inflame African-American voters (among others). Hillary Clinton’s labeling of half of Trump’s voters as a “basket of deplorables” has infuriated some of his supporters, leading them to embrace the tag “Les deplorables” in defiance.
“There is no evidence that the campaign will do anything to reduce the partisan polarization that has blocked progress on vital national problems. On the contrary, it seems likely to deepen the crisis of governance that has hobbled the United States for much too long,” writes William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, in a study of the problems facing the next administration.
Think of the changes affecting the makeup of the parties this way: The Republican Party is becoming whiter, older, and more religious than the country as a whole. The reverse is true for the Democratic Party, which is becoming diverse, younger, and less religious faster than the US population.
Take race. These changes do not mean the GOP is becoming the all-white party. Instead, they mean that the racial makeup of the two parties is becoming more and more dissimilar, as racial minorities disproportionately favor Democrats.
In 2008, whites made up 88 percent of all Republicans and Republican-leaning voters in the US, according to Pew’s data. By 2016, that had slipped two percentage points, with whites making up 86 percent of the GOP coalition.
On the other end of the political spectrum, whites made up 64 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners when President Obama was elected in 2008. They are only 57 percent of the Democratic coalition today – a seven percent drop over the period of Obama’s two terms.
The same trend holds for age, with Republicans becoming relatively older; education, with college-educated voters declining as a percentage of the GOP and increasing as a percentage of the Democratic vote; and religion. Fully 29 percent of the Democratic coalition now rates itself as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. The corresponding figure for the GOP is 12 percent.
“Summing up, Democrats are becoming the party of minorities and college-educated whites while Republicans are becoming the party of whites with lower levels of education,” writes William Galston of Brookings.
These groups aren’t just divided by inflammatory, nonsubstantive wedge issues. They have real differences of outlook and interest, Galston notes.
Minorities are more likely than whites to support affirmative action. College-educated voters are perhaps more likely than the non-college-educated to support increased federal aid for education. Religious voters are more likely to oppose abortion. And so on.
Overall, the Democratic coalition is more comfortable with diversity, believes that the present is better than the past, and looks forward to the future with optimism. The Republican coalition sees increasing diversity as a threat, prefers past decades over today, and looks ahead with foreboding.
“These are differences of kind, not degree, and they create a gap that the winner of the 2016 presidential election will find it hard to narrow unless he or she focuses on an agenda of national reconciliation starting on Day 1 of the transition,” according to Galston.