Feb 2, 2020 - Politics & Policy
What Matters 2020

The demographic shifts disrupting the political world

Photo illustration of an upward trend line in red, cut out of newspaper featuring Central American migrant families, immigration court protests, people crossing a busy city street, and a church

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images, Banaras Khan/AFP via Getty Images, and Alfredo Estrella/AFP via Getty Images

America's identity is nearing a tipping point as demographics change, which helps explain why so many 2020 presidential candidates are testing the conventional wisdom about who can win elections.

The big picture: The irony is that the biggest changes haven't been reflected in the kinds of candidates leading the 2020 polls — most of whom are white, rich men. But they could have a big impact on the final outcome.

  • More women and ethnic-and-racial-minority candidates than ever ran in this Democratic nominating contest. Yet the frontrunners are white and mostly male or in their 70s.
  • Aspects of "socialism" are gaining appeal as income disparity grows. Yet President Trump and two Democrats claim billionaire status.

Here are five of the biggest demographic trends shaping politics.

1. The liberal youth revolution

Millennial and Gen Z Americans are sticking with the Democratic Party as they move through adulthood. They're embracing "liberalism" and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez branded "socialism." If Democrats could only get them to the polls, they'd gain political power for the foreseeable future.

  • Young voters who turned 18 under Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush voted Republican more often than the national average, Pew Research Center found. The youngest voters under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have voted far more Democratic.

Who to watch: Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78, is the leading youth vote candidate. He's spent more than half of his Facebook ad money targeting 15- to 24-year-olds. Two youth-led, progressive groups endorsed him in early January.

  • Michael Bloomberg, 77, was spending more of his Facebook ad money than anyone on that youngest group.

2. Older generations' growing voting power

The share of the electorate from older, more conservative generations is growing as the massive baby boomer generation ages and life expectancy rises.

  • Retirement-aged Americans outvote young people. They're also more likely to have expendable income to invest in political candidates and parties.

Who to watch: President Trump and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have received more campaign donations from retirees than other candidates, according to an Axios analysis of FEC data. Several polls have shown Biden's strength is with older, Democratic voters.

3. A shrinking white America

America's majority minority future has elevated identity politics and immigration: 2020 will be the first time Hispanic voters make up the electorate's largest minority group.

  • Since 2010, non-Hispanic white people have lost their majority in 32 additional U.S. counties, according to census data. Texas and Nevada have become majority minority since 2000.

What to watch: Trump rewards the white, non-college-educated population that was crucial to his 2016 victory, particularly by rolling out aggressive anti-immigration policies.

  • 2020 Democratic candidates talk often about winning back the "Obama coalition" of black, Hispanic, young and female voters. Support from black voters could be crucial for Biden.

4. The great rural exodus

The world is urbanizing, bringing housing, health care, transportation and energy concerns. Meanwhile, rural America is in the middle of a downward spiral.

  • As the overall population grows, the percentage of Americans living in urban areas rose faster, translating to 46 million more people in urban areas since 2000.
  • States with the highest population density tend to be Democratic and coastal. New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland have the highest population densities, according to World Population Review.

Who to watch: Warren has a plan to tackle the lack of affordable housing in cities, while Bloomberg woos city mayors.

  • Meanwhile, Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar often tout their Midwestern roots.
  • Trump has bailed out farmers and promised to rebuild manufacturing, coal and mining industries, but his trade war with China hurt many in those sectors.

5. Dying religion

Around a quarter of Americans are now unaffiliated with religion as the white Christian population — which is largely Republican — declines, according to Pew Research.

  • In 2018, 41% of the population identified as white and Christian, down from 54% in 2008, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). White evangelicals in particular fell from 21% of the population to 15% in the same time period.
“If current trends continue, the two parties could evolve into a Republican Party that is the party of white Christians and a Democratic Party that is the party of everyone else."
— Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI and author of "The End of White Christian America"
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