In the era of Trump, it’s easy to lose perspective on broader trends in U.S. politics. While the national press obsesses about the president’s every statement or ill-advised tweet, it largely ignores the vital activity of the nation’s fifty state governments.
With Washington frequently afflicted by partisan gridlock, much important policymaking occurs at the state level, where most states are under one party (usually GOP) executive and legislative control. Republicans currently have total control of 25 state governments, Democrats only six.
This pro-GOP trend has been building in recent elections, leading to a record low number of Democratic state legislators. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump recently assessed the scale of the shift. He found a steady rise in the number of Republican state legislators since the early 1990s. The significant exceptions to the trend occurred in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats again gained the lead in state legislative seats.
But since 2008, the trend has been emphatically Republican, not just in state legislative seats but also in partisan identification in state public opinion polls. Bump notes that only the state of Alaska witnessed a decline in Republican Party identification from 2008 to 2014.
A whopping 40 states have become more Republican in both presidential votes and state legislative seat shares since 2008, with only Arizona and California trending Democratic since then on both of these indicators.
Minnesota is no exception to this trend. It elected its first Republican Legislature in state history in 2010 and repeated the feat in 2016. Hillary Clinton carried the state by a mere 1.5 percent, the lowest Democratic win margin since 1984. Outside of the inner Twin Cities metro, Minnesota was Trump and GOP electoral territory in 2016.
Some analysts nevertheless think the future belongs to the Democratic Party because of demographic trends. This thesis was first articulated by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their influential 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. They argued that the increasing number of non-white citizens, an enduring “gender gap” with female voters preferring Democrats and the rise of a liberal urban professional class might well deliver reliable Democratic majorities in national politics and in many states.
There are problems with any “demography is destiny” predictions. Columbia University researcher Musa al-Gharbi in his web essay “The Democratic Party is facing a demographic crisis” contends that “The Democrats’ current coalition presents a very narrow path to victory.”
Why? According to al-Gharbi: “Republicans actually don’t need to outright win — or even come close to winning — any of these [usually Democratic] demographic categories in order to come out ahead. If minority turnout is low, Republicans win. If Democrats fail to capture 2012 levels of black, Hispanic and Asian votes, they lose. It doesn’t really matter if lost votes go to Republicans or independents — the outcome is the same.”
Musa al-Gharbi demonstrates this with extensive analysis of the 2016 presidential election exit polls. All of the key Democratic demographic groups — including blacks, Latinos, Asians, women and millennials — provided declining shares of support for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Further, Democrats are growing their backing in a small number of geographically clustered and noncompetitive electoral districts. This hobbles their ability to win state legislative and U.S. House seats for the future.
The Democrats’ fate hangs on several crucial questions.
First, was 2016 an aberration or a continuation of what will prove to be a lasting trend of Democratic decline? It’s possible that Hillary Clinton’s liabilities as a candidate continued a trend of Democratic decline that otherwise would not have existed. Yet it’s also possible that Barack Obama’s popularity stemmed only temporarily what otherwise would have been further Democratic declines in partisan support and state legislative seats.
That also raises the Trump question. Will his controversial presidency disrupt the pro-GOP trends? Midterm elections coming up in 2018 are usually bad news for the president’s party.
A third question involves the future voting tendencies of pro-Democratic groups in the electorate. Musa al-Gharbi contends that both ideological identification and perceived interests tend to grow more diverse among groups as they expand. That could cut into the Democrats’ large margins among growing non-white populations.
Relatedly, as analyst Michael Barone argues, the steadily declining white share of the electorate may prompt whites to vote in a more uniform way as they find their position as the “dominant majority” threatened by elements of the Democrats’ increasingly progressive agenda. Trump has already successfully gained votes by stoking fears of immigration and urban crime among white voters.
Confident predictions of one party’s long-term gains or demise have often proven wrong. Our political future depends on the actual course of state, national and world events, the management of government in response to those events and the temperament and demeanor of those in public office.
That suggests the Donald Trump can affect the fate of the two major parties in significant ways, as did George W. Bush (with the Iraq War) and Barack Obama (with the Affordable Care Act) did before him. Of course, the Bush’s war and Obama’s health care legislation did not in the short-term improve the electoral prospects of their parties. That’s a warning to Trump.
Will these national personalities and events affect state governments and elections? Yes. They have in the past and will in the future.
Meanwhile, keep in mind that the GOP is faring quite well in state government and that much policy change is occurring there as a result. An overlooked but vital aspect of partisan change is its impact beyond the beltway in state capitals across the nation.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.