Nothing changes until it does
In 2022, or 2026 at the latest, the United States will see a reaction against the Democratic Party and overwhelmingly elect a Republican House of Representatives and Senate. Over the last decades, much of the country drifted conservative while liberals concentrated in urban areas. Demographics will not come to the rescue in the short or the long term.
Setting the stage
It’s impossible at this point to handicap the upcoming presidential election. Biden leads by a significant margin, but Trump is running even or ahead of 2016 in battleground states. Continuing lockdowns, racial strife, and civil unrest could benefit either candidate.
The November election could see a Biden tidal wave washing most of the country in Blue similar to Reagan, Nixon, or LBJ, but that seems unlikely. A Biden win would rise at least slightly above Hillary Clinton’s performance but would probably not surpass Barack Obama’s performance.
Likewise, Trump could win a blowout, but the signs don’t point that way. If he’s about where he was in 2016 according to the swing state polls, are they more accurate or less accurate than four years ago? The lower limit for Trump to win is Trump’s performance in 2016. For an upper limit, is he likely to better than Bush in 2004? Or Obama in 2012? Probably not.
The most likely scenario is a narrow victory or defeat.
The rightward drift
Apart from the current election, political representation in the United States has undergone a rightward drift since the 1970s as shown by these convenient charts. The proportion of state legislative bodies controlled by Republicans has gone up, while the number of split legislatures or both houses controlled by Democrats has declined.
Likewise, the overall number of Republicans in the US House of Representatives trended up over the same period. Democratic waves and Republican waves, like in 2006 or 2010, swing Congress in one direction or the other, but over the last generation the Republicans on the average gain more ground than they give up.
Democrats point to gerrymandering and demand that districts be apportioned by party identification, but the Supreme Court rejected the argument. Both parties do it anyway and trying to balance districts so that proportional numbers get elected in each state would be an endless chase.
The real structural bias doesn’t come through gerrymandering but through simple geography. Where Democrats are in power, they are concentrated into an overwhelming majority. Republicans tend to control more but generally closer districts.
New York City presents an easy and extreme example. Excluding Staten Island, the remaining four boroughs contain 11 congressional districts, which lean Democratic from D+24 to D+44. Of Hillary Clinton’s 2.9M vote lead in 2016, 1.5M came from Bronx, New York, Queens, and Kings counties. On the West Coast, Las Angeles County added nearly 1.7M votes to Clinton’s margins from 18 congressional districts.
As long as the United States retains single-member districts, there will be no good way to spread the votes of these densely packed areas out among more representatives. The structural advantage will continue until Democrats regain the ability to win over less urbanized areas.
Demographics are not destiny
In 2002, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira released The Emerging Democratic Majority. They argued that the growth of minorities and other groups that favor the Democrats presented an opportunity for the Democratic Party to build an enduring coalition.
Now, though, Teixeira points out that the misinterpretation of their work led to disastrous consequences for the Democratic Party. While Obama appealed to a significant portion of the white working class, they left the Democrats in droves for Donald Trump. The rising coalition cannot succeed without much of its traditional base.
History gives other reasons to doubt the destiny thesis. Traditionally, immigrant groups voted in blocks, supporting one party or another. Party loyalty might last generations. Eventually, though, ethnic groups become fragmented, and the fully assimilated youth view politics through different lenses than their elders. Young Cubans, for example, have begun to drift away from the Republican Party.
This dynamic cuts both ways. Perhaps the Democrats will hang on to 90% or more of the black vote forever. Or, more likely, the 2008 Obama election was the high-water mark for both turnout and party ID. Trump received 8% of the black vote in 2016. Would it be crazy to believe he could get 12% in 2020? He’s certainly tried to reach out with criminal justice reform, courting HBCUs, and touting pre-pandemic employment numbers.
Might some future slightly more sympathetic Republican candidates reap 25%? Wedge issues like charter schools abound. Or, as more of the black community continues to move into the middle class, their children will simply become disconnected from the concerns of previous generations.
Charting the future
Will the slow rightward drift continue? Any trend change won’t show for decades. In the near term, 2022 or 2026, the concentration of Democratic votes will remain the same and the equilibrium point will favor the Republicans.
Suppose Biden wins in 2020, keeps the current majority in the House, and manages a bare majority or 50–50 split in the Senate. A national unifying event like 9/11 is possible, or it’s even possible that in two years the United States has such robust economic growth that he will be hailed as a hero.
More likely, though, is overreach. If he follows through on the progressive agenda (and the Senate ends the filibuster, as seems likely), the United States could see massive restrictions on gun ownership, the reinvigoration of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or expansion of socialized medicine, and aggressive climate legislation. Biden has also stated his intention to raise taxes.
Each one of these things on its own could galvanize the right as Bill Clinton (assault weapons ban) learned in 1994, Barack Obama (ACA) learned in 2010, or George H. W. Bush (taxes) learned in 1990/1992. Altogether, there could be a torrent of Republican enthusiasm, coupled with off-year elections where Republican turnout is usually higher anyway. Add in the tendency of the party in power to lose seats and the outlook will be grim for the Democrats.
Under a Trump win in November, Republican legislative strength will likely continue to deteriorate in 2022, and absent a Reaganesque second term, the presidency will flip again in 2024. The future becomes a little murkier six years out. The Democratic president in 2024 might even be a centrist in the Bill Clinton mode. Even so, with Republicans even further from their equilibrium point, a large snapback is still likely.
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.