Mere seconds after the polls closed on election night, the national networks shaded Mississippi and its six electoral votes deep red. Mitt Romney’s victory in the Magnolia State was a foregone conclusion. Neither presidential candidate spent time or money there, and none of the state’s Congressional races looked to be competitive. Had the unfortunate images of Ole Miss students burning an Obama-Biden sign not cropped up on Twitter that night, the political press would have ignored Mississippi completely.
For good reason. Mississippi has supported only one Democratic nominee in the past half-century. Jimmy Carter’s Southern drawl and Baptist bona fides carried Mississippi’s electoral votes (by a hair) in 1976. But ideology trumped regional loyalty by 1980, when Mississippi swung to Ronald Reagan, and neither of Mississippi’s neighbors Bill Clinton or Al Gore could bring it back. By 2012, even a quarter-billionaire Mormon Yankee could sweep the state easily.
The state’s Republican Party was built from scratch upon the disaffection of segregationist Democrats after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Mississippians who had held a century-long grudge against the party of Lincoln flocked to Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 after his vote against that year’s landmark Civil Rights Act. Goldwater won over 87% of those able to cast a ballot — which, notably, only included one in 15 voting-age African Americans. Despite the solid opposition of Mississippi’s black minority, Republicans can still count on the Goldwater coalition to carry them to victory. Bush won 86% of Mississippi’s white vote in 2004, McCain won 88% in 2008, and Romney carried 90% in 2012.
Republicans should be frightened, then, that Mississippi was one of the few states that gave Barack Obama more of its vote in 2012 than in 2008. The shift (0.5%) was hardly tectonic, but compared to Obama’s 3-point decrease nationally, it was significant. The GOP’s margin of victory has now shrunk in the last three cycles, down from Bush’s 20-point win over Kerry in 2004. Among the 24 states that Romney carried, Mississippi’s 12-point margin was the sixth-slimmest.
National Democratic strategists have focused their attention on flipping states with growing Latino populations, such as Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina. No surprise then that Mississippi, only 3% Latino, has been excluded from the conversation. Taken with its location at the buckle of the Bible Belt, and a blue Mississippi is unthinkable for many inside and outside the state.
I’m here to tell you that it will happen — and soon. I predict that Mississippi will be a swing state by 2024. But regardless of when, this November’s results foreshadow an inevitable Democratic ascent.
The reason has more to do with age than race. Here is a graph of each candidate’s performance by age group in Mississippi (darker) compared to his performance nationally (lighter). The lines show the percentage of the vote each candidate received by age group; the bars represent the share of the candidate’s total votes that each group composed:
Source: CNN exit polling data
As we can see, the national and state performance generally tracked each other quite well, with Mississippians of each age group voting roughly 5 percentage points more conservatively than their national counterparts. The exception is the over-65 group, which delivered a whopping 78% of their votes to Romney — roughly 20 percentage points more than their peers nationwide.
Take them out of the electorate, and the race between Obama and Romney becomes much tighter:
|Age Group||Share of Total U-65 Electorate||Obama U-65 Vote Share||Romney U-65 Vote Share|
Had seniors voted in line with their succeeding generations of Mississippians, at about 5 percentage points more Republican than the national average, Romney would have carried the state by 8 points instead of 12. A solid victory, but hardly a landslide.
That older voters are more conservative is no revelation; across the nation, they are more likely to be white, more likely to live in rural areas, and more likely to attend regular church services. So why are Mississippi’s seniors more conservative than their national counterparts? Mississippi’s history offers the best explanation. A 65-year-old Mississippian would have likely graduated high school some 47 years ago, in 1965. The vast majority of Mississippi’s public schools were not desegregated until 1970, which means that each of the over-65 voters came of age during the height of Jim Crow and Southern resistance to integration. Studies show that the political zeitgeist during one’s formative years often has a lifetime effect, so while the racial attitudes of many (but not all) in this group have evolved with the changing times, their political persuasions have not. Obama likely received no more than 1-2% of the vote among Mississippi’s white seniors.
This argument is supported by the radical shift in the political attitudes of the 50-64 age group, who vote nearly identically to the national average. Most of those voters graduated from integrated schools in the 1970s, and they are — relative to their national peers — the most progressive cohort of Mississippi voters. (While we should be warned about reading too closely into any numbers based on a small sample size, such a shift would follow the literature about the effect of school integration on social attitudes. The schools of the 1970s South were the most racially-mixed of any in American history.)
Clearly, these data show that Mississippi’s 21st century GOP hegemony relies upon a narrow and overleveraged sliver of the electorate. Nearly 20% of Romney’s votes came from the over-65 set, compared to only 7% of Obama’s. On the other hand, millennial voters provided nearly one-quarter of Obama’s votes in Mississippi, compared to only 15% for Romney:
|Age Group||Share of MS Obama Vote||Share of MS Romney Vote|
This vote distribution is not unique to Romney. Each of the past three Republican candidates has depended on roughly the same pattern:
Meanwhile, the distribution of Democratic voters provides a much healthier prognosis for future election cycles:
These graphs should trouble Mississippi Republicans. Unless they can make inroads with younger voters, their political base will — as callous as it sounds — die off.
What would happen once the current over-65 cohort is replaced by younger, more progressive voters? By maintaining each age group’s weight in the electorate and voting preferences, I can generate this projection for 2024, when almost every voter will have entered the next age bracket and a large number of the over-65 voters will have dropped out of the electorate:
|Age Group||Share of Vote||Democratic Vote||Democratic % of Total Votes Cast||Republican Vote||Republican % of Total Votes Cast|
The Republican candidate would prevail, but by a margin similar to Romney’s 2012 victory in the battleground state of North Carolina. Factor in a large margin of error, and Mississippi would be a tossup.
This (admittedly crude) analysis obviously rests on several assumptions. First, it assumes static composition and preferences of the electorate. Evidence from the past three presidential elections suggest that the age distribution of Mississippi voters has remained relatively stable, and there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t be similar in future cycles. Even if the baby boom generation skews the electorate modestly, it would stand to benefit the Democrats — remember, today’s 50-64 year-olds voted almost exactly like their peers nationwide:
Preference across age groups has also remained relatively consistent. As you can see from the below graph, John Kerry’s performance was similar to Obama’s within each cohort. (The small differences in their performance are likely statistically insignificant due to the small sample sizes used in the polls.) What’s important is that Democratic support among millenial voters in Mississippi appears to be the rule rather than the exception.
I also assume that a Democratic voter in 2012 will vote Democratic in future elections. There is inherent difficulty in recording changes in individual voter preference over time, but many studies have shown partisan loyalty to be quite strong throughout one’s lifetime. And contrary to conventional wisdom, little evidence suggests that voters get more conservative with age. One of the most frequently-cited studies on the topic, a 2007 paper published in the American Sociological Review, found that voters may actually become more liberal as they grow older. Older voters tend to be more conservative than younger ones because they came of age in more conservative eras, not because their views changed over time. By the same token, Democratic support among youth is not guaranteed. Prior to Kerry and Obama, Democrats rarely enjoyed a significant advantage among young voters. The durability of the lead among millenials gives us reason to expect it to persist.
There are also several reasons why I feel that this projection underestimates the Democrats’ potential. Mississippi, as with the rest of the country, is growing more diverse. It is among a handful of states whose child populations are over 50% non-white. Given the inelasticity of the black vote in Mississippi, this should increase the Democratic vote share among the rising cohort of 18-29 year olds. White Mississippi youth have also shown a higher propensity to vote Democratic — about 20% — in recent cycles.
The reconstruction of the party organization in Mississippi should also improve Democrats’ chances. As it stands, the state party is both financially and politically bankrupt. Republicans have only faced token opposition in recent years: Democrats struggle to field candidates for statewide offices, much less win them. The political apparatus should be rebuilt as progressive politicos and donors nationwide take notice of their rising chances in Mississippi. An aggressive effort to organize and mobilize Mississippi Democrats could boost turnout by several percent.
I expect Republicans to argue in response that Democrats overperformed in 2008 and 2012 because Obama drove record levels of black turnout. They may have a point. Exit polls in 2004 showed that Mississippi’s electorate was 65% white, compared to 62% in 2008 and 59% in 2012. They could also point to the fact that McCain and Romney did not energize Mississippi’s social conservatives to the same degree that Bush did. Indeed, Romney only received 3,000 more votes than Bush in 2004, while Obama received 83,000 more than Kerry. Obviously Obama had an impact on turnout, but we will not know until 2016 — when presumably the Democrats will nominate a white candidate* — the full measure of his presence on the ballot.
This rebuttal only changes the time frame of my projection, not its conclusion. Minority turnout in 2012 merely erased the white turnout advantage from previous elections. Non-white Mississippians voted in equal share to their proportion of the general population (41%). The racial turnout gap may reemerge in future elections, but thanks to Mississippi’s growing minority population, it will only delay the inevitable Democratic ascent.
The biggest assumption, of course, is that the Republican Party will not reposition itself to win the support of the “Obama coalition”: young voters, female voters, and minority voters. In the political marketplace, parties possess the same competitive incentives as companies to adapt to the demands of the public. Dwight Eisenhower won the White House after five Democratic terms by embracing a more activist federal government; he used it to build the interstate system and enforce Brown v. Board of Education. Bill Clinton rebranded himself as a “New Democrat” after 12 years of Republican rule and implemented strict work requirements for welfare while deregulating Wall Street.
But I question the current Republican Party’s ability to modernize its positions in the near term. Their response to changing demographics have thus far been purely defensive: attempting to suppress the minority vote through photo ID requirements and discouraging Latino population growth through draconian immigration laws. (While political self-preservation was not the stated intention of these efforts, it most certainly weighed into the consideration.) Now, Mississippi’s Republican governor has declared his intention to deny Medicaid coverage to 600,000 predominantly-black Mississippians that Obamacare would have covered. In doing so, he is rejecting $23 in federal aid for every $1 required of the state. These positions will only damage the Republican Party’s standing among the constituencies it must attract.
In a strategic sense, losing Mississippi — and, in turn, its dependence on the Solid South — might actually be a blessing for the national GOP. As long as they are beholden to Southern social conservatives, Republicans will exacerbate the age gaps that have emerged on issues such as gay rights, reproductive rights, scientific inquiry, and marijuana decriminalization. They could afford to lose Mississippi in the name of creative destruction: six electoral votes in exchange for national relevance among a rising generation of voters. As it stands, the Republican base is too old, white, and Southern. That may have been good enough to win Mississippi in 2012, but it won’t be for much longer.
*Though who predicted in 2004 that a black Illinois state senator named “Hussein” would be nominated four years later?