Race and the Future of the Democratic and Republican Parties

Does the steady growth of racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States mean inevitable Democratic party domination? How does each group form attachments — or not — to a political party? Recently I asked Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee, authors of Why Americans Don’t Join the Party: Race, Immigration, and the Failure (of Political Parties) to Engage the Electorate, to offer their theories on race and partisan politics. Read on for their thought-provoking explanations — with lessons for both political parties — on what exactly drives party identification.



Race and the Future of the Democratic and Republican Parties

Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee


In many ways America’s changing racial demographics present a real challenge to the Republican Party. The GOP is becoming more and more dependent on white voters at a time when the white share of the population is rapidly declining.  In 2010 Republican Congressional candidates garnered 60 percent of the white vote – by most estimates the highest proportion of the white vote that the GOP has won in any national election since World War II.  Two years earlier, 91 percent of the votes that John McCain received in his presidential bid came from non-Hispanic white voters.   On the flip side, as the racial and ethnic minority population grows, it appears to be increasingly attracted to the Democratic Party.  In recent contests Democrats have garnered about 90 percent of the black vote, two-thirds of the Latino vote, and a clear majority of the Asian American vote.  Considering these figures and the fact that nonwhites are likely to make up a majority of the American population by 2050, one might reasonably predict a future of Democratic domination and Republican irrelevance.

But as we demonstrate in our book this conventional view tells only part of the story of race and partisan politics. An equally significant trend that we highlight is the growth of the unaffiliated population.  Between 1945 and today the proportion of Americans who choose not to identify with one of the two major political parties has more than doubled from 15 percent to 36 percent. Critically, this trend is even more pronounced among minorities.   The largest segment of the Latino and Asian American population is not Democratic identifiers, as the conventional story would suggest, but rather non-identifiers – those who altogether refuse to answer a question about party identification or who claim that they do not think in partisan terms.  Combined, these non-identifiers and Independents make up the clear majority of the Latino and Asian American populations. Even among blacks where racial considerations seem to ensure Democratic allegiance, there are signs of diminished attachment.   Almost thirty percent of blacks feel that the Democratic Party does not work hard for black interests.  We maintain that the most dominant forces in these minority populations are not ties to the Democratic Party but rather ambivalence and uncertainty.

What are the lessons for America’s Parties?  The first and most obvious is that the future of the minority vote is still very much up for grabs.  If either party wants to maintain a dominant position in American politics, it ignores this segment of the American population at its own peril. The second lesson is not to dismiss this nonpartisan population as apolitical or unreachable.  Although these unaffiliated minorities currently tend to reside on the sidelines of American politics, our research shows that they often do care about politics and that they can be mobilized.  In the midst of this diverse nonpartisan population is an array of individuals who would – if properly targeted – become fully engaged.

The real lesson here is how to target this large and growing segment of the population.  Instinctively, parties and practitioners might feel that they need to race to the middle to target the median voter’s ideal point. An array of findings in our book indicate that this logic is less sustainable. Given the increasingly multi-dimensional nature of the American public, it is far from obvious where the median lies and less than clear that if the parties do try to race to that median, who this strategy will attract.  We suggest, instead, that to be successful in America’s increasingly diverse electorate, candidates and political parties will have to consider a multifaceted and multi-racial campaign. Rather than ignore race as the Democrats have in the recent past or use race to lure whites together into a largely exclusionary majority as the Republicans have tried in recent decades, the alternative that we offer is to communicate multi-vocally across the spectrum.

The strategy entails carefully culling through a political agenda to hone in on issues of particular concern to one group that are sufficiently peripheral to other groups that strong stands on these issues will not repel support from other groups.  For Latinos, that issue might be some narrow elements of immigration reform.  For Asian Americans, access to higher education might be an area to make in-roads without inciting an equal and opposite reaction.  Anti-discrimination efforts might similarly attract black support without provoking hostility from other groups.  The winnable set may be thin, but the list could go on.  The key is to exploit the multi-dimensional nature of the American public by appealing to each group on areas of particular concern to that group.  Since the areas of unique concern to one group can often be orthogonal or inconsequential to the core concerns of a second (or third or fourth) group, this multi-pronged approach can accommodate a fairly diverse array of interests.   The basic intuition here is to leverage racial diversity rather than put all one’s political chips into one group or ignore race altogether.

The partisan and political consequences of all of this are too huge to ignore. Over 65 percent of the minority adult population did not vote in the last presidential contest.  These are individuals who could be mobilized, who could be attracted to a party, and who could sway electoral outcomes. At present, one party – the Democrats – has an inside track on a racial multi-vocal strategy.  But the eventual outcome of this battle for the hearts and minds of America’s diverse uncommitted population is far from settled.


Zoltan L. Hajnal is associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Taeku Lee is professor of political science and law and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.