The Path to 270: Demographics Versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election

Report by the Center for American Progress examines how changing demographics and the perceived and real state of the economy will play a huge role in determining the presidential winner when voters head to the polls in 2012.

Obviously, much could change between now and then but at the outset of the election campaign it is clear that two large forces will ultimately determine the outcome: the shifting demographic balance of the American electorate, and the objective reality and voter perception of the economy in key battleground states. The central questions of the election are thus fairly straightforward. Will the rising electorate of communities of color, the Millennial generation, professionals, single women, and seculars that pushed Obama to victory in 2008 be sufficient and mobilized enough to ensure his re-election in 2012? Or will the Republican Party and its presidential nominee capitalize on a struggling economy and greater mobilization from a conservative base that holds the president in deep disdain?

Regardless of the outcome, it is likely that American politics will remain highly contested and polarized for years to come. The electoral volatility seen from 2006 to 2010 suggests that the biggest issues in American politics—the role of government, the balance of public and market forces, taxation, and social welfare policies—remain contested in partisan terms. The financial crisis and the Great Recession have severely clouded the electoral picture, making it clear that 2008 marked only the potential for a new progressive alignment in American elections, rather than its consolidation. Given the job approval ratings of the president and economic indicators in key states (see Table 1 on next page), the 2012 election will likely be tighter than the 2008 election, perhaps more like 2004 or even the highly contested 2000 election.