The Demographic Electoral College

Ron Brownstein’s article on “The Hidden History of the Electorate” contains a wealth of useful information. It’s also got some interesting analysis:

The past five presidential elections have involved very different Democratic nominees (from Michael Dukakis and John Kerry to Clinton and Al Gore) running in very different circumstances. Yet over that entire period, the Democratic share of the vote among white men has varied little: ranging between lows of 36 percent (in 1988 and 2000) and a high of 38 percent (for Clinton’s 1996 re-election). That remarkable stability suggests a structural resistance to Democrats among these men that will be difficult for any single candidate to overcome.

That’s interesting, and strongly suggests that people should spend less time writing articles about the latest twists and turns in Democratic Party efforts to get white men to vote for them. White men, it turns out, vote for Democrats in about the same proportion no matter what the parties do so this just isn’t a very interesting story. Unfortunately, Brownstein then swerves into less sound territory:

The interaction of educational and marital status compounds the effects and sharpens the picture. Single women are more Democratic than married women; college-educated women are more Democratic than noncollege women. Not surprisingly, then, Democrats have carried single, college-educated white women in each of the past five elections — exceeding 60 percent in the last two. At the other end of the spectrum, married, non-college white women (the so-called waitress moms) have voted Republican five straight times; Bush carried almost two-thirds of them in 2004.

White women cross-pressured by their marital and educational status tend to be swing voters. Married white women with a college education split almost evenly between the parties in 1992, 1996, and 2000 but broke sharply for Bush in 2004. Single white women without a college education lean Democratic, but George H.W. Bush carried them in 1988 and his son ran almost even with them last time.

This is what I call the fallacy of the “demographic electoral college.” In the real electoral college, winning Florida by one percentage point is much better than losing Florida by one percentage point. Meanwhile, winning New York by six points is no worse than winning New York by sixteen points. You often see demographic sub-groups treated this way. Democrats always win African-Americans, so African-Americans aren’t a swing group. But because married white women with a college education frequently split evenly, they are a swing vote that needs to be courted.


It’s important to understand that votes aren’t counted this way. Getting 51 percent of the white married non-college women’s voted is very similar to getting 49 percent of that vote. Whether or not you “win” the group has no significance. At the same time, getting 95 percent of the black vote is better than getting 85 percent of the black vote. When you talk about states, the “swing” states are the ones where sometimes one party gets a majority and other times the other party does. But when you talk about demographic groups, a “swing” group — if that language means anything — should be a group that shows a lot of election-to-election variance irrespective of the general level of who wins and who loses.