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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 BidenSenate Democrats negotiating changes to coronavirus bill Rural Americans are the future of the clean energy economy — policymakers must to catch up WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money: Senators push for changes as chamber nears vote on .9T relief bill | Warren offers bill to create wealth tax Sanders vows to force vote on minimum wage No. 2 Senate Democrat shoots down overruling parliamentarian on minimum wage MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Senators push for changes as chamber nears vote on .9T relief bill | Warren offers bill to create wealth tax Sanders vows to force vote on minimum wage Warren's wealth tax would cost 100 richest Americans billion MORE (D-Mass.) and Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegHarris pushes for support for cities in coronavirus relief package Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden vs. Trump, part II 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 Bloomberg'Lucky': How Warren took down Bloomberg Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson vs. Donald Trump: A serious comparison On The Trail: The political perils of Snowmageddon 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 ClintonClinton: Allegations against Cuomo 'raise serious questions,' deserve probe Clinton, Pelosi holding online Women's Day fundraiser with Chrissy Teigen, Amanda Gorman Media circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden 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 TrumpProsecutors focus Trump Organization probe on company's financial officer: report WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year Romney released from hospital after fall over the weekend 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 ObamaWhy Biden can't turn back the clock on the Iran nuclear deal CPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be Americans have decided to give professionals a chance 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.