Partisan gap widens as demographics shift

Story highlights

  • Both parties make-up has shifted
  • The changes are fueled partly by demographic shifts

Washington (CNN)The Democratic Party that selected Hillary Clinton to be its nominee this year has a drastically different demographic profile than the one that chose her husband to top the ticket in 1992. And so, too, does the Republican Party that emerged from the Reagan era scarcely resemble the one that today selected Donald Trump as its standard bearer.

Amid changes fueled partly by demographic shifts in the United States and partly by increasing polarization within those groups, a new report from the Pew Research Center finds America's two major political parties look almost nothing like they did a quarter century ago when Democrat Bill Clinton was first elected to the White House.
    As voting age population has grown increasingly non-white, older, and better educated, so too have the two major parties. But the analysis finds that the country's changing demographics have made the two parties farther apart rather than closer together even as the share of Democrats and Republicans in the nation's voter pool holds fairly steady.
    Overall, more Americans say they are Democrats or Democratic-leaners (48%) than that they affiliate with the Republican Party or lean toward it (44%). Those figures have held roughly steady since 2008, but reflect a more Republican-friendly electorate than in 1992 (then 51% were Democrats or Democratic-leaning vs. 41% Republican/Republican-leaning).
    The demographic groups that make up those coalitions have shifted sharply in the last 24 years. Among those who identify as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party, 57% are white, down from 76% across Pew's surveys in 1992. Among Republicans and Republican-leaners, that change has been far less drastic, from 93% white in 1992 to 86% now.
    Black (21%) and Hispanic (12%) voters make up about one-third of the Democratic voter pool, compared with just 8% among Republicans (2% are black and 6% Hispanic).
    Within those racial and ethnic groups, Republicans have been gaining ground among white non-Hispanic voters, and now hold a larger advantage over Democrats in terms of party identification among whites than at any point since 1992, according to Pew's analysis.
    That long-term shift toward the Republican side among whites comes almost entirely from shifting partisan views among men. In 1992, 48% of white men considered themselves Republicans or leaned toward the Republican Party. Now, 61% do. Among white women, the share who are Republican or Republican-leaning has tilted from 44% in 1992 to 47% now.
    At the same time, the increase in non-whites among the Democratic coalition over that time stems largely from the growing numbers of blacks and Hispanics in the voter pool more than an increase in support for Democrats among those groups.
    The yawning chasm between white voters with college degrees and those without them has been a central focus of the 2016 election, and that divide reflects the changing core of each party. While a majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaners in 1992 were whites without college degrees (59%), they make up just one-third of the party now (32%). And Democrats are actually now more apt to be college graduates than are Republicans, a reversal since 1992.
    College graduates have grown as a share of the population over that time, and have shifted increasingly toward the Democrats, according to the Pew analysis. While 45% of college graduates considered themselves Democrats or leaned toward the Democratic Party in 1992, that stands at 53% today. Among those with a high school education or less, the figures are almost exactly reversed, from 55% Democratic in 1992 to 46% today.
    That divide has widened especially in the last eight years, driven by a steep increase in Republican affiliation among whites with no more than a high school education. Among that group, 59% say they are Republicans or lean that way, while just 33% are Democrats or Democratic-leaners. As recently as 2007, the Democrats narrowly outnumbered the Republicans among this group, 46% to 42%.
    On the opposite end of the scale, those who have completed at least some postgraduate coursework have gone from a slight-Democratic tilt in 1992 (50% leaned Democratic, 45% Republican) to a wide 59% to 36% chasm now.
    The population overall is aging, and both parties have aged accordingly.
    The Baby Boom generation has tilted the GOP older, while Millennials are helping to minimize aging among the Democrats. Boomers now tilt slightly Republican (49% to 45%), and members of the silent generation (those age 71 to 88) are increasingly Republican, according to Pew's data (53% GOP or GOP-leaning vs. 40% Democratic).
    At the same time, Gen X'ers and Millennials are tilting a bit more toward the Democrats in recent years, helping to offset the overall aging of the population.
    Although Millennials are a broadly Democratic-leaning group, with 57% saying they see themselves as Democrats or lean that way, they are also more apt than older voters to consider themselves political independents and merely lean toward a party, suggesting their partisan ties are weakest.
    The Pew report is based on the results of 253 surveys conducted by telephone by the Pew Research Center from 1992 through 2016. The 2016 results reflect interviews with 8,113 registered voters through August of this year. The margin of error for overall results in the 2016 data is 1.2 percentage points, it is larger for subgroups.