Why changing U.S. demographics aren’t affecting the political balance of power

People walk through New York's Times Square.
People walk through New York’s Times Square.
(Associated Press)

Over the last three decades, the U.S. population has undergone huge changes: The country has become more racially and ethnically diverse, education levels have shot up, religious attendance has dramatically declined.

Yet despite those huge changes, the relative size of the two big political-party coalitions has stayed almost identical.

Isaac Newton intended his laws of motion to describe physics, not elections, but America’s political system has almost perfectly illustrated his Third Law — the one about every action being accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction.

“There’s been a huge amount of change in the last 30 years,” said Baxter Oliphant, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. “But despite all those changes, the parties are still evenly divided.”

This week, Pew released a detailed look at how that happened and how the two parties’ coalitions have changed as we head toward what currently seems likely to be another close election.

Their report, based on tens of thousands of voter-survey interviews, shows how the deadlock of the U.S. political system has persisted for more than a generation and helps explain why some areas — like Orange County in California or Maricopa County (Phoenix) in Arizona — have emerged as preeminent swing territories.


More secular, more divided by religion

“Republicans and Democrats do not just hold different beliefs and opinions about major issues, they are much more different racially, ethnically, geographically and in educational attainment than they used to be,” the report says.

What was once a messy divide between Democrats and Republicans has become increasingly sorted out, with religious, ideological, class and social divisions all mapping neatly onto partisan lines.

The religious divide illustrates how that has happened and how huge demographic changes have taken place without altering the country’s partisan balance.

Since 1996, the share of Americans who identify as religious “nones” — atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” — has risen sharply. Nearly three in 10 Americans are now “nones.”

That share has nearly doubled since 2007, when Pew first began asking. Gallup, which asks the question a bit differently and has been asking longer, shows the share has tripled since the mid-1990s.

As secular Americans have become more common, they’ve also gravitated toward the Democrats. Today, 70% of religious nones identify as Democrats or as independents who lean Democratic, compared with 27% who identify as Republican or Republican leaners, Pew found.


Earlier in this century, some prominent analysts predicted that the rapid growth of secular America would greatly benefit the Democrats. After all, the party was gaining strength among a rapidly growing group. It stood to reason that greater electoral strength would follow.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a Democratic majority. As Newton might say, there was an action and a reaction.

Yes, the number of secular Americans grew, and those secular voters began to identify more strongly with the Democrats. But at the same time, religious conservatives shifted more and more heavily toward the Republicans.

As recently as 2009, Americans who identify as Protestant divided almost evenly between the two parties. Today, Republicans have an edge of about 20 percentage points among Protestants, Pew’s numbers show.

Most of that shift has come among white Protestants, especially those who identify as evangelical: Among white, evangelical Protestant voters, 85% now identify as Republicans or independents who lean to the GOP.

Candidates and political operatives, always on the lookout for ways to motivate their supporters, have seen that religious divide and have played up issues that take advantage of it — abortion, transgender rights, school prayer and more.


As the culture war has intensified, the religious divide has grown. That makes culture-war issues more useful as political motivators, so candidates use them more. A cycle of greater division ensues.

Today, while highly religious liberals and conservative agnostics still exist, the question of how important religion is in a voter’s life has become the single most useful predictor of which party they support. Except among Black voters, the more religious a person, the more likely they are to support the GOP.

Big divides on race, education, geography

The numbers can tell similar stories about other big shifts in the U.S. electorate that have offset each other.

Voters have become more racially and ethnically diverse, for example, especially with the big rise in the nation’s Latino and Asian populations.

When President Clinton won reelection in 1996, the electorate was 85% white. Today, the white share of the electorate has dropped to 67%. The Latino share was just 4% back then. It’s 13% now.

That increasing diversity has helped Democrats in some areas. Overall, Democratic ranks are now 44% non-white, up from 23% in Clinton’s day. The strong growth of Democratic support among Latino and Asian voters has played a key role in making California a solidly Democratic state.


But again, there’s been an equal reaction: Republicans have picked up support among white voters, especially those without a college degree and those living in rural areas — two groups that have been key to former President Trump’s support.

As recently as 2008, Democrats and Republicans got equal amounts of support among white voters, but conservative white voters turned against the Democratic Party during President Obama’s tenure.

Today, the GOP leads Democrats among white voters by about 15 points, Pew finds.

The GOP has remained an overwhelmingly white party — nearly eight in 10 Republican voters are white. As the nation’s white majority shrinks, Republicans have been able to make the numbers work by boosting turnout among the white electorate.

Now, Republicans have started to make inroads into Democratic support among Latino voters, and some Black voters. So far, that’s mostly been limited to voters of color who already identified as conservative. Whether the GOP can go beyond that group, as some polls this year have indicated, will be key to how this year’s election turns out.

How demographics shape the battlegrounds

Orange County is shaping up to be among the chief places where questions like that will play out in the battle for control of the House. At least two districts in the county will be in play, perhaps more.

Why? Pew’s report sheds light on the demographic trends.

To start, the county is suburban. Democrats dominate among urban voters in the U.S.; Republicans among rural voters. But the suburbs divide almost evenly. In the most recent surveys, Republicans nationwide had a 50%-47% edge over Democrats in suburban areas, the same as in 2000.

Beyond that, O.C. has a large share of college-educated voters. That’s been key for Democrats, who have a 55%-42% advantage over Republicans among voters with a college degree.

Backing among college-educated women, in particular, was key to the success of Rep. Katie Porter, who told the L.A. Times in an interview this week that she’s confident the Democrats can hold onto her Irvine-based congressional district. She decided to forego a bid for reelection in order to run unsuccessfully for the Senate.


But the county is also the home of some of the country’s biggest megachurches and has a large number of religious conservative voters. And the county has large populations of Asian and Latino voters whom both parties will be courting this year.

Democrats have done well among college-educated suburbanites in the Trump era. But they’ve had more problems in less affluent areas where fewer voters have college degrees.

Southern California illustrates that trend, as well. Even as Porter won reelection in 2020 and 2022 in her 47th Congressional District, her party lost races in northern Los Angeles County’s 27th Congressional District — a less affluent swath of suburbia where Rep. Mike Garcia hopes to win again this year.

Breaking the stalemate

Repeatedly in recent years, strategists for one party or the other have seized on demographic trends to proclaim that a new era of dominance for their side was right around the corner.

Some Democrats think Trump’s MAGA coalition is so out of touch with a changing America that it surely will collapse. Some Republicans insist they are expanding their appeal among non-college-educated voters of color enough to build a new, multi-racial working-class coalition.

It’s quite possible that one or the other prediction will eventually come true because the stalemate between the two big parties is not normal. The current era is by far the longest the U.S. has gone without one clearly dominant party.

The Pew data, however, are a reminder to be skeptical of such grand claims. A lot has changed over the last three decades. But the deadlock between the two parties has survived it all.


What else you should be reading

The must read: The Economist takes its own data-driven look at how demographics shape American politics, complete with a great “Build a voter” interactive widget that allows you to see how race, age, gender, religion and other characteristics change the likelihood of being a Trump or Biden voter.

Poll of the week: Should Democrats now start hoping for low turnout? Maybe. President Biden does much better than Trump among repeat voters, while Trump wins handily among people who seldom vote, according to a survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago.

L.A. Times special: As Biden struggles to sell Bidenomics to skeptical voters, he’s facing the all-too-real consequences of stubbornly higher inflation, but he’s also battling human psychology. Both of those factors may be especially strong in California, writes Don Lee.

Until next week,
David Lauter

Was this newsletter forwarded to you? Sign up here to get it in your inbox.