The University Record, October 23, 2000

Regional shifts in voting-age population shaping 2000 election

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Sharp regional shifts in America’s voting-age population since 1990 are shaping the results of the 2000 presidential election, according to U-M demographer William H. Frey (www.frey-demographer.org), first author of an article on voters on the new, regional politics in the October issue of Population Today (www.prb.org/pt/).

According to Frey, a research scientist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (www.isr.umich.edu), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization, these shifts include:

  • The concentration of voting-age populations of Hispanics and Asians in the key melting-pot states of California, Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey;

  • The movement of white middle-class suburbanites away from large coastal metropolises to fast-growing areas of the “New Sunbelt” in western and south Atlantic coastal states;

  • The return of Blacks to the South, with 53 percent of the nation’s Black voting-age population estimated to be residing there on Election Day; and

  • The consolidation of three key groups of key voters—white working wives, white “forgotten majority” males (age 18 to 64, with no college education) and white seniors—in the interior “battleground” states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri.

    Frey’s findings are based on an analysis of U.S. Census sources, including the 1999 Current Population Survey.

    “These four trends are beginning to cement distinct regional differences in the demographic profiles of the country’s voting population,” Frey says. “While the new migration patterns would appear to have a bigger impact on fast-growing destination states, they also affect states with slow-growing or declining populations by increasing the political clout of the groups left behind.”

    For example, white working wives, white men without a college education, and white seniors together make up only 46 percent of the total U.S. voting-age population. But they constitute 53 percent of the voting-age population of the six key “battleground” states. The population of these states has stagnated or declined in the past decade, Frey points out, with Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin likely to lose electoral votes, based on the forthcoming results of the 2000 Census.

    “The arcane demographic calculus of the Electoral College system not only inflates the value of these demographic segments,” he notes, “but also inflates the value of these and other slow-growing states at the end of the decade with reapportionment just around the corner.”

    Both major presidential contenders are courting these groups of white voters, Frey observes, by emphasizing “compassionate” social policies or a willingness to fight for “working-class families.” They are hoping to attract the senior vote with promises to protect Social Security and reduce the financial burden of prescription drugs.

    The most dramatic migration-related change in the nation’s electorate since 1990 is the infusion of new immigrant minorities, Frey points out, with the combined voting-age populations of Hispanics and Asians increasing by 9.6 million since 1990 to 29.5 million people on Election Day. “More significant is the concentration of this growth in only a few states,” he says. “California, Texas, Florida and New York garnered 61 percent of these gains, and now have almost two-thirds of the combined Hispanic and Asian voting-age population.

    “It’s true that new immigrant minorities tend to vote in significantly lower numbers than the native-born population,” says Frey. “Nonetheless, both George Bush and Al Gore pay attention to these changing demographics when visiting melting pot states, by speaking Spanish when visiting Hispanic neighborhoods, and by calling for reforms in the INS system and improvements in public education.”

    Finally, Frey notes that the re-consolidation of Blacks in the U.S. South, along with a new migration there of northern suburban whites, will keep the South a distinct but more progressive voting region than in the past. In these “Black and white gainer” states, including Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, the voting-age population on Election Day will be 22 percent Black and 74 percent white.

    Altogether, these trends are creating sharp regional “demographic divides” with distinct sets of constituencies and issues, Frey notes. As different regions of the country become even more demographically distinct, presidential campaigns will become ever more careful balancing acts.

    Frey also is a Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif.