World

Is Demography Destiny? The US Electorate, post-Hurricane Maria

Despite a veritable deluge of astonishing (and a few horrifying) events – the Las Vegas killing spree, the Kurdistan and Catalan referenda, the defeat of yet another “Repeal and Replace” assault on Obamacare, the German election and the ugliness of Alternative for Germany’s entry into the Bundestag, just to name a few – in today’s article, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a breath and looks at some larger demographic issues and how they may impact on the upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections in the US. But readers shouldn’t worry too much; any maths will be easy to digest.

Napoleon reportedly set out the popular dictum: “Geography is destiny”, in reference to his vision of a French-led pan-European empire. This idea has subsequently been used by later conquerors and economists to explain – and sometimes to justify – everything from the urge for national expansion such as America’s “manifest destiny” and Germany’s reach for “lebensraum”, to explanations for poor economic development where a lack of a sea coast and difficult transport have limited growth such as economist Jeffrey Sachs’ writing about weak sister economies. And it has also been used to describe the luck some nations have encountered when they discovered their country sat atop vast amounts of sticky black goo that can be pumped to the surface and sold for vast fortunes.

But in our age, the Corsican “Little Corporal’s” idea must to be restated somewhat. Nowadays, perhaps it is demography that is destiny – especially where democratic nations are concerned. We shall explore this from several different perspectives not usually much discussed abroad where people increasingly focus on the Twitter drivel that sometimes passes for political discourse – but that are now vitally important for American political life.

The US Supreme Court began its 2017-18 session on 2 October, and one of the most compelling cases it has agreed to rule on – with the oral arguments delivered on 3 October – is the Wisconsin redistricting decision. As the New York Times set out the situation,

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Tuesday in a case that could reshape American democracy. The justices will consider whether extreme partisan gerrymandering — the drawing of voting districts to give lopsided advantages to the party in power — violates the constitution.

The Supreme Court has never struck down an election map on the ground that it was drawn to make sure one political party wins an outsize number of seats. The court has, however, left open the possibility that some kinds of political gamesmanship in redistricting may be too extreme.

The case, Gill v. Whitford, No. 16-1161, started when Republicans gained complete control of Wisconsin’s government in 2010 for the first time in more than 40 years. It was a redistricting year, and lawmakers promptly drew a map for the State Assembly that helped Republicans convert very close statewide vote totals into lopsided legislative majorities.”

Besides the building of a full database on the nation and its economic activity, constitutionally, the US has a census every 10 years in order to apportion the number of members each state has, according to population, for the national House of Representatives – and thus also to determine the number of electoral votes for presidential elections. As it stands, each state’s legislature has the right to determine the specific delineations of each of those individual districts, rather than any impartial, national experts body.

The current Wisconsin case speaks to how that state’s legislature drew those district boundary lines to favour overwhelmingly the chances of Republican candidates by grouping as many largely Democratic voters as possible in as few congressional districts as was possible to do, short of destroying the state’s map entirely. In short, Wisconsin’s redistricting was a textbook version of gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering, of course, has had a long American history. In fact, the very term comes from the name of one early 19th century Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry. His influence over his state’s redistricting on behalf of his party had produced districts so bizarrely shaped that some of them, per local lore and, most especially, a savage political cartoon of the time, closely resembled the shape of salamanders, hence the neologism: gerrymandering.

In describing this current Supreme Court case, the New York Times had earlier editorialised,

Yet even though the Supreme Court has said a political gerrymander may be so extreme that it violates the constitution, it has never struck one down because the justices have not been able to agree on how much partisanship in map drawing is too much, or even how to measure it.

If any case could convince them that it’s time to step in and find a solution fast, it’s the one they’re hearing on Tuesday: Gill v Whitford, a lawsuit out of Wisconsin that offers a stark lesson in just how distorted the map-drawing process has become in an era of sophisticated mapping technology and intense political polarisation.

In 2010, Republicans won unified control of Wisconsin’s government for the first time in years. They were determined not to lose it any time soon, so they turned the decennial redistricting process, which began in 2011, into a clandestine partisan operation. They set up a ‘map room’ at a Republican-allied law firm, used refined data analyses to draw new, Republican-friendly district lines, and invited only Republican lawmakers to come in and see their new districts — after they signed non-disclosure agreements.

It worked. In 2012, the first election using the new maps, Republican candidates won 48 percent of the vote, but 60 of the state’s 99 legislative seats. The Democrats’ 51 percent that year translated into only 39 seats, yet two years later, when the Republicans won the same share of the vote, they ended up with 63 seats — a 24-seat differential. In other words, Republicans had figured out how to draw maps to lock in their legislative majority no matter how many, or few, votes they received. [Italics added]

This is the opposite of how democracy is supposed to work, as a Federal District Court in Wisconsin found in striking down the maps last year under both the First and 14th Amendments. It was beyond doubt, the court held, that the new maps were ‘designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats.’

The court rejected the lawmakers’ claim that the discrepancy between vote share and legislative seats was due simply to political geography: Democratic voters, they said, are concentrated in urban areas, so their votes have an impact on fewer races, while Republicans are spread out across the state. In fact, that doesn’t explain why the Wisconsin maps are so skewed. Rather, political science experts point to two predictors of a successful partisan gerrymander: state legislatures under one-party control and a recent history of close elections. Wisconsin has both.”

If Wisconsin’s redistricting plan – and the operational method for it – is overturned conclusively by the Supreme Court, Wisconsin congressional districts will need to be redone somehow in order to militate the impact of the recent – partisan – redistricting. But, also important, this decision will probably also have a major impact on other states that have equally bizarre, modern versions of Gov Gerry’s salamanders. And that could well lead to a much tighter balance of Democrats and Republicans elected to Congress, perhaps even as early as 2018’s midterm election. And that, in turn, could have a significant impact on the ability of Republicans to succeed with a whole raft of proposals that would require congressional votes. Demography, especially when connected to congressional bean counting, does indeed go hand-in-hand with destiny.

Then there is the potential demographic and electoral impact of Hurricane Maria. Yes, of course, its major initial impact was devastation across many of the islands in the Caribbean Sea, including the British and American Virgin Islands, the French and Dutch half-half-owned island of St Martin/St Maarten. And then there is Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is different from all the others deeply affected by Hurricane Maria, largely because of the size of its population, over three million people, as well as the fact that all of its inhabitants are already American citizens from birth and thus have the right to move to the continental US any time they wish.

Puerto Rico is not a state, but, rather, a commonwealth of the US, as is Guam, for example. The bargain for Puerto Rico, early in the 20th century, was that while its inhabitants would be citizens, they could not vote in national elections as it was not a state, but – crucially – they would not be subject to any federal taxes. So far at least, a majority of the island’s inhabitants have supported this deal in several referenda on the choice of continued commonwealth status, statehood or independence.

But, over the years, large communities of people of Puerto Rican origin have continued to migrate to the mainland, especially to the states of Florida (such as in and around the city of Orlando), New York, New Jersey, and several of the New England states. And, of course, the moment they arrived on the mainland, they were citizens of those states and they had the right to register to vote.

While, in socio-economic terms, Puerto Rican-Americans would seem to be likely Democrats – even though the political ecology on the island differs somewhat from that of the mainland – the migrants tend to vote in line with those socio-economic factors once they are in the US itself. However, if, as would seem increasingly likely, a large new influx of Puerto Ricans moves to the continental US for economic reasons – if there are no jobs because of the economic destruction on the island after the hurricane they must go somewhere to survive and many Puerto Ricans already have family ties on the mainland – they are likely to carry with them some rather potent anger about the lackadaisical response to their distress from the Trump administration, anger over Trump’s public snit fight with the mayor of San Juan, and some annoyance with the reluctance of the US Congress to deal with the island’s virtual bankruptcy that had come about even before the hurricane’s damage.

Now, put this possibly extensive population movement together with the fact that Florida, now one of the country’s largest states in population terms, also has a major slice of the presidential electoral vote. Moreover, in recent years Florida has been trending away from the increasing Republican domination that has been characteristic of it since the late 1960s when the Nixonian Southern strategy was put in motion to peel the South from its traditional Democratic support. Accordingly, an influx of Puerto Rican migrants might just push Florida into the semi-permanent blue state column for elections. Or, as James Hohmann explained the question in The Washington Post the other day,

More than 50-million ballots were cast by Floridians in the seven presidential elections from 1992 through 2016. If you add them all up, only 18,000 votes separate the Republicans from the Democrats. That is 0.04 percent. [Italics added]

Florida is rightfully considered the swingiest of swing states. Control of the White House in 2000 came down to a few hundred hanging chads — and one vote on the Supreme Court. The past four statewide elections — two governor’s races and two presidentials — were all decided by a single percentage point.

So it could be quite politically significant that tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, maybe more, are expected to permanently move into Florida as the result of Hurricane Maria. The Category 4 storm has wreaked havoc on the US territory of 3.4-million. Most of the island still doesn’t have power a week after Maria made landfall. There are shortages of fuel, medicine, food and running water. Infrastructure that was already crumbling is in ruins.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens, thanks to a law passed in 1917. As a result, all they need to settle in the mainland is a plane ticket or a berth on a boat. Their citizenship entitles them to vote, and they tend to overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates [once they vote in the US, that is].

Florida-based Republican operative Rick Wilson thinks the hurricane might be a game changer. ‘If you put an influx of 100,000 Puerto Ricans who vote Democratic eight times out of 10 in the Orlando area, there you go,’ he said. ‘Nobody can afford a big change in the registration pattern or a change in the voting pattern that offsets Florida’s narrowness. You could end up with a big advantage for Democrats in 2018 if they play it right. The Puerto Ricans would be coming here because they feel like Donald Trump left them high and dry. That won’t fade away. … It could be a very, very big deal.’ ”

Of course that means Democrats would have to work out how to appeal effectively to this new Puerto Rican-American vote, presumably along largely economic grounds (and building on that anger towards the incumbent president) rather than simply employing yet again the niche identity strategy that was the unsuccessful core of Hillary Clinton’s effort last year. But, if Florida were moved definitively out of the Republican column for 2020, that would make it a much bigger hill to climb for the GOP for them to continue to hold the presidency. This is because the Florida electoral vote count is over 10% of the total number of electoral votes needed to win the White House. Here again, demography can become destiny for presidential contenders.

The third demographic fact comes from a report from the US Federal Reserve Bank released last week. As reported in The Washington Post,

Americans who were left behind as the country pulled out of the Great Recession — African-Americans, Hispanics and people without college degrees — saw large gains in net worth over the past three years…. But the improvements didn’t narrow the inequality gap: The share of US income held by the top 1 percent of households reached 24 percent in 2016, a record high, and the median net worth of white households, at $171,000, was nearly 10 times larger than for black households….”

The article went on to note,

Household wealth for African-American and Hispanic families and Americans without college degrees or high school diplomas rose the fastest of all groups from 2013 to 2016, according to the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances, which surveys more than 6,000 households about their pay, debt and other finances. Black households went from $13,600 in net worth in 2013 to $17,600 in 2016, a gain of almost 30 percent. Hispanic households went from $14,200 to $20,700 over the same time frame, a 46 percent increase, the Fed reported….

Economists said the large financial gains made by blacks and Hispanics were largely explained by the fact that the two groups have far less money to begin with, compared with whites, and so any increase as a result of the nation’s economic recovery would appear to be disproportionately large.

“ ‘You’re looking at people with lower net worth, so when the economy recovers, you are going to see them benefit disproportionately as a percentage,’ said Jeffrey Eisenach, an economist and managing director at NERA Economic Consulting, which released a study in December on Latino prosperity.

“ ‘If you’re poor and you go through a tough period, you use all your savings to get through it,’ ” Eisenach said. “ ‘If you go from having very little to doubling that, you still may not have very much, but you see a big percentage gain.’ ”

This kind of improvement on the part of minorities, despite the greater gains of the wealthy, and the continuing overall black/white family wealth gap, may well have encouraged significant numbers of people who ultimately voted for Donald Trump to feel they had been left behind and that minorities were gaining “unfair” advantage in a tough economic period in the years after the recovery from the 2008-9 financial crisis. Someone like Trump with his rough populist rhetoric and dog whistles was in their corner. If that is true, then the political advantage for the future, once again, will fall to the party and candidate that can most convincingly offer reassurances that future growth will be shared more effectively and equitably, rather than skewed towards one group or one economic layer. Just as that banner said in the headquarters of one of Bill Clinton’s early primary election campaigns, it remains true that “it is the economy, stupid” that underpins an electoral race.

Taken together, these demographic trends: a likely push towards a fairer redistricting of congressional seats to Democratic Party advantage; the potential impact of an inflow of Puerto Rican-Americans from the island to the continental US, and the unequal impact (or perception) of segmented economic growth, all stand a fair chance of reshuffling the electoral deck, come the 2020 general election, or even, perhaps, 2018’s midterm one. Smart politicians are already gaming these trends as best they can; but much will still depend on how well almost certain candidates – and potential candidates eager to test the waters – will be able to convey policy ideas convincingly to an electorate that build on such demographics.

Make no mistake – the next elections are already in the view of such candidates on the part of Democrats as well as Republicans. Differently than in 2016, the GOP will now be forced to stand on Donald Trump’s actual record, as well as all those embarrassing public performances, tweets, and failed or absent appointments. And, of course, he will have to stand or fall on how his administration actually resolves the current North Korean impasse (rather than the idle threats about fire and fury), how he carries out actual economic and trade negotiations with China, and how he deals with the chimera of a silly wall to the south of the country. And if Hurricane Maria turns out to be Trump’s Katrina moment, he will only have himself to blame when it makes Florida a bastion of Democratic voting in the coming electoral cycles. DM

Photo: Inhabitants of the neighbourhood La Perla take refuge in the city hall, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 19 September 2017. EPA-EFE/Thais Llorca

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