Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability

The top candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination are running counter to their party’s diversity insistence. By subdividing society and establishing the expectation that groups be represented by their own, Democrats are poised to turn off – and not turn out – voters on whom they depend. If that happens, the past pursuit of identity-group politics will inflict a heavy 2020 price. 

Democrats have only four candidates with double-digit support: Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenRon Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenNew poll shows Markey with wide lead over Kennedy in Massachusetts Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' MORE (D-Mass.) and Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Obamas, Clintons to headline Biden's nominating convention MORE. All four are white; three are men; and three are at least 70 years old. The hot new entrant, former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergEverytown on the NRA lawsuit: 'Come November, we're going to make sure they're out of power, too' Hillicon Valley: Trump raises idea of delaying election, faces swift bipartisan pushback | Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google release earnings reports | Senators ask Justice Department to investigate TikTok, Zoom Meme group joins with Lincoln Project in new campaign against Trump MORE, only reinforces this lack of diversity. 

Democrats have made diversity a mantra for the self-serving reason that they get strong support among these groups. The thinking goes that by demanding that their standard-bearers reflect the diversity of their supporters, they increase their chances of winning. (Of course, theirs is a self-defined diversity only: It notably does not apply to ideology.) 

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If Democrats’ demand for diversity is qualified, their dependence on the groups for which they demand it is not. According to exit polling from the 2016 election, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Harris make first public appearance as running mates Trump campaign spox rips GOP congressman over rejection of QAnon conspiracy Biden hits back after Trump's attacks on Harris MORE received the votes of 89 percent of black voters, 66 percent of Hispanics, 65 percent of Asians, 54 percent of women, 56 percent of 18-24 year-olds and 54 percent of 25-29 year-olds.Democratic percentages were comparable in the 2018 midterms.

Any decreased support from these groups, who are under- or unrepresented in Democrats’ top four presidential contenders today, would have a dramatic impact on Democrats. In 2016, nonwhites made up 29 percent of voters; 74 percent of them voted for Democrats, accounting for almost 45 percent of Clinton’s popular vote total. 

If Democrats’ support among nonwhites declined just 10 points, to 64 percent, it would equal roughly a 3 percent drop in Democrats’ 2016 vote totals. This is seemingly small. Yet consider how Democrats would have fared if Hillary had received 45.2 percent of the popular vote instead of the 48.2 percent she actually won

Turning off these base voters should not be Democrats’ only concern; they must also worry that at least some of them could turn over to President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE and Republicans. If that sounds implausible, then simply look at historical precedent.

Democrats have not faced an incumbent Republican president since 2004. Incumbency matters a great deal when the economy is strong, as it undeniably is now. Since 1912, incumbent elected presidents are 11-3 when running on a good economy, and every re-elected incumbent except Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden, Harris tear into Trump in first joint appearance The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden, Harris's first day as running mates It's Harris — and we're not surprised MORE in 2012 increased their share of the popular vote.

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The 2004 election’s results bore out this general trend. President Bush increased his popular vote totals across the board, including among Democratic core groups. Exit polls showed that Bush increased his support among women by 5 percentage points, among blacks by two points, among Hispanics by nine points, among Asians by two points and among 30-44 year-olds by four points.  

A look at unemployment rates shows why Democrats in 2020 are already threatened by President Trump’s inroads to these groups. In January 2017, the unemployment rate among women was 3.9 percent; today it is 2.9 percent. Over that period, the unemployment rate has fallen 2.2 points among blacks, 1.7 points among Hispanics and 1.1 points among Asians. Couple Trump’s economy and incumbency advantages with Democrats’ potential liability in not representing base groups, and the 2020 threat grows still larger.

Democrats are in danger of being hoisted by their own petard in 2020. Their self-interest in identity politics makes clear why they have aggressively pursued a diversity strategy so diligently. Now their 2020 field’s lack of it may turn this decidedly against their self-interest. 

While in general a diversity strategy maximizes Democrats’ political opportunities, in 2020 it could undercut them if they are perceived to be unrepresentative themselves. 

At the presidential level, there has always been an inherent risk in Democrats’ identity obsession. In specific local elections, such a strategy is possible because each race can represent its own group. But in a presidential election, a national election with only one candidate, it is impossible for every group to be directly represented. Democrats thus risk disappointing some groups when they nominate a presidential candidate.

Democrats’ inherent vulnerability is only enhanced by their current field’s increasing homogeneity. It is enhanced even further by facing an incumbent president with a strong economy, which already positions him to make inroads into their base groups. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.