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A Changing America Faces A Stark Choice This Election

Bertrand Lepautremat
Getty Images

America is changing. It's getting browner, as population growth stagnates among whites. And Millennials, who now outnumber baby boomers, are poised to become the dominant political generation of the next 35 years beginning in this election.

Non-whites now make up a majority of kindergartners. By the next presidential election, the Census Bureau projects, they will be a majority of all children. And by 2044, no one racial group will be a majority of the country.

2016 could be the first election in which the white vote is at or below 70 percent as a share of the electorate. For perspective: in 1976, whites made up 89 percent of voters. As Latino and Asian immigration increased in the 1990s and 2000s, the white vote has been set on a steady decline.

America is at an inflection point — politically and culturally. The crosscurrents of demographic and cultural change are upending traditional voting patterns and straining the fabric of what it means to be American. Few could have imagined just how those changes would have manifested in this election, which presents Americans with a stark choice.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Dade City, Fla., Nov. 1, and Republican nominee Donald Trump in Warren, Mich., Oct. 31, 2016.
Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Dade City, Fla., Nov. 1, and Republican nominee Donald Trump in Warren, Mich., Oct. 31, 2016.

Donald Trump

The Republican nominee — coming after two terms of the first black president, has fanned the flames of white racial fears and resentment — be it toward Latino immigrants, Muslims or African Americans.

He has dismissed immigrants in the U.S. illegally as "rapists" and inaccurately portrayedthem as more likely to commit violent crimes; called for a ban on Muslims coming into the United States and charged American Muslims with not doing a good enough job reporting potential homegrown terrorism; and he depicted African-Americans as largely living in poverty and violence.

"What the hell do you have to lose?" Trump asked of black voters, challenging their allegiance to the Democratic Party — while speaking before an overwhelmingly white crowd in a white suburb.

That's not even to mention his years-long birther conspiracy quest, in which he tried to cast doubt on the birthplace of President Obama. Trump finally acknowledged in this campaign that the president was born in Hawaii, but did not apologize and instead attempted to shift blame to Clinton's 2008 campaign.

If Trump loses, though, his undoing may have been his mounting offenses against women, who have been a majority of the electorate since 1984. Trump repeatedly made superficial comments about women's appearances, whether it was resurfacing past grudges, saying a prominent cable host and debate moderator had blood coming out of her "wherever," doubling down about a former Miss Universe's weight, charging that no one would want to look at a female primary opponent's "face" as president, and saying Democrat Hillary Clinton — who would be the first woman president if she defeats Trump — doesn't have the "stamina" to be president and doesn't have a presidential "look."

Most damning to his candidacy was the leaked 2005 audio of Trump bragging about groping women, grabbing them between the legs and kissing them without their consent — actions that would be assault if carried out. That, with his repeated dismissal of it as "locker-room talk," went beyond his usual list of offenses. The tape caused not just uproar from Democrats but an exodus of dozens of former elected-Republican supporters.

Hillary Clinton

All of this while the Democratic Party has put forward another candidate who would be a historic first — this time, the first woman. Clinton, though, has her own flaws. The email server set up in her home while she was secretary of state has been shown to be not just a mistake, but a political anchor around her foot.

She has not been able to move past it the entire campaign — and it has proven to be politically damaging. Just look at how even the slightest whiff of the reemergence of the email scandal affected the race.

Despite the substance of emails found on former Congressman Anthony Weiner's laptop — the estranged husband of Huma Abedin, a close Clinton aide — not being known, Clinton's expanded lead over Trump all but completely evaporated after an FBI letter to Congress. That letter from FBI Director James Comey, just 11 days before Election Day, all but reopened the investigation into Clinton's server — even though Comey noted that he didn't know the significance of the emails, and he hadn't yet looked at them.

That original sin of setting up the private server has reinforced the perception problem Clinton has — of not appearing forthright and trustworthy. And she has suffered the consequences — barely able to fend off Trump.

The emails along with the private paid speeches revealed through hacks and published on Wikileaks — in which she was saying one thing to international bankers and Wall Street and something else to the general public — only reinforced that perception.

And they have given ammunition to those who see the worst in Clinton. If she wins, it's all but guaranteed that House Republicans would set up a permanent investigation of Clinton during her first term.

Why 'Make America Great Again' worked for a certain group

Despite all of the controversy Trump has created — doing things that would have been disqualifying for nearly anyone else who's ever run — he still maintains the backing of millions of hard-core supporters.

Trump has come along at quite a moment in American history and was the right man for an angry, overwhelmingly white and disaffected group. It was ripe to be wooed by Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan. Not all of Trump voters fit this category. Many are regular Republican voters, united by their animus toward Clinton, Democratic policies and the Supreme Court.

But why was the most vocal sect of Trump's support likely to be swayed by his trademark message?

Supporters cheer for Donald Trump at a campaign rally in in Tampa, Fla., Saturday.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
Supporters cheer for Donald Trump at a campaign rally in in Tampa, Fla., Saturday.

They are more likely to be uncomfortable with social and demographic changes occurring in modern American society. Majorities of Trump backers have told pollsters the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities; it bothers them when they hear immigrants not speaking English; they believe the U.S. is becoming too "soft and feminine"; and that men and women should stick to more traditional gender roles and tasks.

This chunk of the electorate has its roots in former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's 2008 vice presidential run and the Tea Party movement that followed. They distrust the government, the media, elites and experts at record levels. They feel increasingly disconnected from the political process, and despite their grudging recognition of Trump's flaws, no one represents the worst of politics and Washington for them more than Clinton. Their animus toward her is deep — and unifying.

These shifts are altering the faces of the American political parties in significant ways. The Democratic and Republican parties, as we know them, are changing and may never be the same. Trump has held policies more akin to a right-wing nationalist than anything that fits squarely in a traditional Republican or Democratic mold. If he loses, and with his hardened depth of support, it's unclear what kind of party the GOP will be after this or what kinds of leaders it will put forth. That very well may be the biggest story after this election.

Change or die

At the presidential level, Democrats have adapted to demographic change. President Obama won reelection in 2012 by 4 percentage points but in an electoral landslide. And he did it with the lowest share of the white vote (39 percent) of any Democrat who's won the White House. The Democratic Party is now more diverse, more urban and more liberal than at any time in its history.

The Republican Party, on the other hand — despite recognizing social and cultural changes, advocating for moderation on positions like immigration and electing more diverse leaders — has struggled to reach out to fast-growing minority groups and, in this election, retrenched.

Democrats have warning signs, too. They are winning over the growing share of non-white voters, while seeing an overall worrisome decline for the party with whites and rural voters. Perhaps no divide is starker than rural vs. urban:

Democrats have been hurt badly by low turnout among non-whites and young voters in the last two congressional midterm elections — and suffered the consequences of losing control of both the House and Senate, imperiling President Obama's agenda.

Trump's campaign, realizing his difficulty reaching out to a broader electorate, now seems to be banking on its only hope being an electorate similar to those midterms. That seems unlikely given the high interest in this campaign, record TV ratings for the debates and strong rates of early vote returns.

Clinton isn't without challenges even in this campaign. Though she can win with just states where she's favored, she has to be able to turn out her voters. There have been warning signs in early voting that black voters are likely to turn out at lower rates than for President Obama, and Clinton has struggled to fire up Millennials.

Young voters are a stalwart Democratic pillar group. And while they indicate they prefer Clinton far more than Trump, Clinton is not winning them by Obama-like margins.

Dissatisfaction with this year's candidates is moving a not insignificant chunk in the direction of third-party candidates, like Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, according to surveys throughout the campaign. Johnson's numbers declined in recent weeks, but movement away from him could be from Republicans going back toward Trump. Whether Johnson's or Stein's support holds up by Election Day could be a factor in key states.

One big problem with the Trump theory of depressing turnout among traditional Democratic groups is that Clinton has also been winning over college-educated whites. That's a troubling sign for the GOP, because those voters have never gone to the Democrats in a presidential election (since formal exit polling began in 1972). The shift is mostly due to women. College-educated white women are choosing Clinton by up to 20 points in some polls, a big reversal from 2012, when they narrowly preferred Mitt Romney over Obama.

Check out just how closely the level of whites with college degrees is tracking this election with support for Clinton or Trump. Clinton is favored in the top 17 of 18 states with the highest levels of whites with college degrees. Trump is favored in each of the bottom 10:

Blue-collar whites, on the other hand, formerly lunch-pail union Democrats, appear to be continuing their 36-year trend toward Republicans. But it's unlikely that there are enough of them alone for Trump to win.

The GOP has become increasingly reliant on this shrinking slice of the electorate. Just how much are they on the decline? Thirty years ago, working-class whites made up two-thirds of the electorate.

Today, they are just about a third:

The only question is whether these trends are Trump-specific or something more long term.

Black voters might not turn out at Obama levels, but they are still firmly in Clinton's camp. What's more, Latinos could see record turnout and be a record share of the electorate. After Romney lost Hispanics by a wider margin than any Republican ever in 2012, the Republican National Committee was explicit in a post-election report that Republicans needed to be more present in black and brown communities.

And on policy, it called on Republicans to endorse immigration reform. Yet, party rank-and-file did not seem to heed the warnings. The 2013 immigration overhaul died in Congress with Republicans standing in the way, despite passing the Senate with 68 votes, including just 14 Republicans.

Divides only likely to deepen

Both parties have divides they need to bridge in this election, but the chasms could be wider than ever. The gender gap, for one, is shaping up to be the largest in history; Latinos could go Democratic by even wider margins than 2012; and the divide between city-dwellers and rural voters looks farther apart than ever.

This is not just a story leading up to this election, but one about how the country changes politically after it. Whoever becomes president will have the tall, if not impossible, task of trying to bridge the left-right divide to govern on serious, important issues they will face — from terrorism and the economy to health care and the national debt.

Americans and their elected officials are more polarized than ever. Compromise has become a dirty word. People increasingly don't believe or trust the news media and fact-checking and instead resort to less reliable sources of information that reaffirm their own views.

As disliked as both Trump and Clinton are — and they have the highest unfavorable ratings of any presidential candidates in history since polling began, with Trump worse off than Clinton — Americans have to take a look in the mirror.

They have to decide amidst this social and cultural change, this demographic and political upheaval, what kind of country they want this to be for the generations to come.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.