Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Are you demographic?

As a sometime demographer myself, I am fascinated by the prominence of “demographics” as an explanatory concept in the recent presidential election, now already slipping away into hazy memory. Recent political journalism would barely stand without this conceptual crutch, as here and here and here. A bit more nuance here. Some pushback from the NY Times here.

The crassest expression of this concept came in an article yesterday by (formerly?) respected conservative journalist Michael Barone, explaining why he was no longer confident that Mitt Romney would win the election by a large margin. Recall that several days before the election, despite the contrary evidence of what tens of thousands of voters were actually telling pollsters, he predicted 315 electoral votes for Romney, saying “Fundamentals usually prevail in American elections. That’s bad news for Barack Obama.” In retrospect, he says,

I was wrong because the outcome of the election was not determined, as I thought it would be, by fundamentals…. I think fundamentals were trumped by mechanics and, to a lesser extent, by demographics.

Put aside mechanics (which presumably means, as Buce has commented (read by me via Brad DeLong), that the Democrats were better at turning out the vote than the Republicans were at suppressing it). What does it mean to say the election was determined by “demographics”? Well, let’s start by asking what “fundamentals” are? According to Barone, one fundamental (the only that helped Obama) is that Americans believe in affirmative action for presidents or, as he puts it, “many, perhaps most, Americans believe it would be a bad thing for Americans to be seen as rejecting the first black president.” Otherwise, he’s talking mainly about the state of the economy, which most people would agree is “unsatisfactory”. Whose fault is the state of the economy? We could argue about that, and there’s a very good case to be made for saying it’s no one’s fault, this is like saying “Whose fault is the weather?” But when Barone and others talk about “fundamentals”, they seem to be ventriloquizing a certain line of political science research, not entirely persuasive, that says that Americans base their vote for president almost entirely on the state of the economy (however that is best measured), and that they hold the president responsible for the state of the economy, regardless of objective evidence to the contrary.

What about demographics? Well, it turns out that some people don’t actually care only about the state of the job market. Some people care about access to abortion or health services, or about marriage rights, or about immigration, or about anti-poverty programs, or about investment in schools or public transport. Sorry, did I say people? I meant some demographic groups. Because these aren’t really “people” in the traditional sense. Many of them are women, or homosexuals, or Hispanic, or African-Americans. And whereas Americans — white men, that is — vote based on fundamentals (meaning the recent change in their disposable income, regardless of what actual policies might be responsible for it), demographic groups seem to all vote for the Democrats for all kinds of weird patronage reasons.

This was put even more starkly in an already-infamous article by journalists Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen from November 4:

If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites. That’s what the polling has consistently shown in the final days of the campaign. It looks more likely than not that he will lose independents, and it’s possible he will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000.A broad mandate this is not.

One is surprised that the Constitution even allows these Demographic-Americans to vote. What’s the point?

Comments on: "Are you demographic?" (2)

  1. […] wrote a while back about my concern, as a sometime demographer, about how the word […]

  2. […] minority voters as being demographically determined was the target of my previous Are you demographic? […]

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