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Political parties need to get with the country’s changing demographics—or get left behind

The real takeaway from the 2016 presidential campaign

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Although Donald Trump crept closer to Hillary Clinton in the polls this week, the most likely outcome of this year's presidential race (i.e., a win for Clinton) can be largely explained by a few simple electoral maps. You've probably seen them making the rounds on social media.

Based on a recent data visualization that appeared on Medium (apparently made with tools from FiveThirtyEight), if only people of color voted in the 2016 presidential election, every electoral vote would go toward a unanimous win for Clinton. Meanwhile, if only white voters went to the ballot box, regardless of gender or educational attainment, the election would be a landslide victory for Trump. It's telling.

Demographers project that white people will form a plurality of U.S. citizens by 2055, making people of color collectively the majority. And last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that, by the year 2020, more than half of all children under 18 will be part of some nonwhite racial group.

If these maps are to be believed, America's shifting demographics will increasingly influence election outcomes. The party that adapts best, on the whole, will win presidential elections. And from the looks of these maps, so far the Democratic Party appears best poised to benefit from this sea change.

It didn't happen overnight. For decades, voters of color have supported Democrats in national elections, largely because the party made more progress on civil rights. But in the present political era, the roots of Democrats' current gains go back to at least 2008, when President Obama's first campaign effectively adapted and targeted his message to various underrepresented demographics, and boosted participation by young voters. The campaign's website, promotional materials, messaging and policy proposals all had segments dedicated to addressing concerns of numerous marginalized groups—including LGBT people, women, and each voter segment of color.

Obama replicated that success in 2012. Although he won over just 39 percent of white voters compared to Mitt Romney's 59 percent (a gap of approximately 18.6 million votes), combined with winning the overwhelming share of black, Hispanic, and Asian voters, Obama was still able to win both the electoral college and 51 percent of the popular vote.

Based on current polling models and projections, it appears that Clinton may emerge victorious in a similar way this year, winning enough white votes, but not the majority.

One would think this would prompt the Republican Party's leadership to make more concerted efforts with voters of color. Yet with Trump's emergence, the dissonance between what the GOP says about people of color and how the party acts on matters of policy has become even more obvious. On the whole, the party appears unwilling to change or rebuild, proceeding with appeals to its overwhelmingly white base.

But even among Democrats, the country's changing demographics should be reason for concern. There's a palpable sense among voters of color that the party takes them for granted. For example, various polls and reports have indicated that younger black voters are much less enthusiastic than their elders about the prospect of a Clinton presidency. Many of them remember her past missteps on key issues, such as her support for the 1994 crime bill. There's also some mixed feelings among Latinos, given her past remarks on immigration, including her statement in 2014 that unaccompanied minors traveling to the U.S. without documentation should be sent back home.

The bottom line is that with demographics shifting, both parties must improve their standing amongst voters of color by showing—not just telling people—that they care.

Granted, Clinton and Trump's platforms are virtually night and day when it comes to, say, gun violence and economic disparities, just to name a few.

But perception also matters greatly, especially for many low-information voters who rely on sound bites and chance encounters with news to make their choices. And the perfunctory appeals made by both campaigns often left those voters underwhelmed.

In the primaries, the Clinton campaign's initial efforts were often clumsy. For example, just before last Christmas, the campaign website released a listicle of "7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your Abuela." The cringe-worthy excuse for outreach played on Clinton’s newborn grandchild, and bore a photo of the candidate and singer Marc Anthony as proof that "everyone loves abuela." It was a massive flop that played into perceptions about pandering for votes, but not actually earning them.

As time went on, however, the campaign made some improvements to establish stronger ties with voters of color, making it clearer that improving their lives is part of Clinton’s vision for the country’s future. In one of her better moments, Clinton named systemic racism as a defining issue of our time, making a major address that introduced a related $125 billion policy agenda. And in a recently released ad featuring the Khans—the Muslim Gold Star family whose son died fighting for the United states in the Iraq War—Khizr Khan asks if his deceased son would’ve had a place in Trump’s vision of America.

As for Trump's campaign?

We need not rehash the many ways he's disparaged marginalized groups, or his decidedly horrific promises to build a wall and the like. We know his campaign has emboldened white nationalists and supremacist groups like the KKK. But his campaign's appeals to voters of color were also reflective of this problem.

There was the laughable Cinco de Mayo taco boat incident, when he tweeted an image of himself eating the dish at his desk along with the message "I love Hispanics!"

(Of course, this came full circle when the head of Latinos for Trump asserted that if Clinton won, there would be "taco trucks on every corner," spawning one of the campaign season’s more pleasant memes.) Trump also caused a furor following a meeting with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, when he falsely claimed that Nieto agreed to pay for a border wall.

Meanwhile, Trump has assumed that black people live only in urban areas, where they are uneducated, impoverished, and plagued by "war zone" conditions, and has persistently used Chicago as a dog whistle on this issue. He's asked black voters directly, "What do you have to lose?" by voting for him, and has limited his appearances in black communities to photo ops in a select few black churches. At an October 25 rally in Sanford, Florida, news reports highlighted that a woman held aloft a "Blacks for Trump" sign behind the candidate—a white woman.

The campaign wouldn't have to play these perception games if it wasn't desperate to get its numbers up. Trump's still polling in the low single digits among African-Americans.

It appears that Trump's been banking on winning a much higher share of white votes than Romney did in 2012, getting a competitive edge even with fewer votes from people of color. After all, he and many of his supporters don't think he's racist, just a man who speaks his mind.

But because Republicans have been complicit with Trump, Chicagoans can't watch an hour of television without seeing ads with GOP officials such as Governor Bruce Rauner declaring they'll support the Republican nominee without qualification. Similar ads have run in other states, in an attempt to sway competitive races.

The GOP's refusal to renounce Trump signals that the party continues to be dominated by white men working overtime to maintain a firm grip on their power and privilege. Given the country's changing demographics, this could backfire even more in the coming years.

This year's election should be a wake-up call for both major parties. Neither of them will get much mileage in the future without fully, authentically embracing voters of color.   v


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