Barack Obama’s campaign for re-election as US president, launched with a video and fundraising website on Monday, is targeting a population which has been transformed racially in the past decade in ways that could have profound repercussions for the 2012 poll.
The electorate has become less white and more Hispanic more rapidly than predicted, according to the national census, two trends that will influence elections for decades.
“America is in the midst of a profound demographic change. Each election now brings a different electorate than the one just past,” said Simon Rosenberg of New Democrat Network, a Democratic-aligned think-tank.
Mr Obama and the Democrats have long had a significant lead among minority voters, lifting their chances of taking states such as Nevada, Georgia and Arizona lost in 2008.
“The big news for politicians is the dispersion of the Hispanic population into parts of the country where they weren’t in very large numbers,” said William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution.
At the same time, Mr Obama and his party’s share of the white vote has reached all-time lows, hitting 40 per cent in last November’s mid-term elections. In the 2008 presidential poll, Mr Obama won 43 per cent of the white vote.
The question for 2012, according to the National Journal in Washington, which applied the census data to the electoral map, is “whether Republicans can increase their advantage among whites enough to overcome what is likely to be a growing share of the overall vote cast by minorities”.
The economic recovery underway in the US, and a discernible increase in job creation, is likely to bolster Mr Obama’s chances.
Another boost may come from the lack of a Republican candidate who can appeal both to the party’s narrowing conservative base and the broader electorate.
The anger felt by many towards Mr Obama has been played out through the Tea Party, a group which is largely white and whose activists emerged as kingmakers within the Republican party.
But the strength of Tea Party sentiment masks the fact that its members represent a declining proportion of the population.
“The white population hasn’t grown that much – it is ageing and the fertility is lower,” said Dr Frey.
The non-Hispanic white population dropped from 69.1 per cent in 2000 to 63.7 per cent in 2010. By contrast, the minority population, which includes African Americans and African Asians, jumped from 30.9 per cent to 36.3 during the same period.
Hispanics were responsible for more than half of the population gain of 27.3m people in the decade, taking the US population to 308m, with their numbers growing in just about every state.
The numbers of people identifying themselves as Hispanics in states like Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Nebraska and New Hampshire all increased by more 50 per cent in the decade. Such rises should help the Democrats in 2012.
Mr Obama’s winning vote in 2008 combined the highly educated, wealthier part of the population – especially women – with minorities, prompting commentators to call it an “Upstairs Downstairs” coalition.
Mr Rosenberg added: “Clearly parts of the coalition have weakened since then, but other parts have remained strong, and those parts – particularly young people and Latinos – will have grown a great deal since the last election.”
He also said it was not just about race but also about globalisation, advances in technology, a decade of stagnant wages and modernity. “The velocity of change in the US is increasing,” he said.
On the other hand, Mr Obama faces headwinds in places such as Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, the “metal-bending” states where blue-collar support for the president has fallen in the recession.
The Hispanic population accounted for half or more of the growth in 18 states, compared with nine in the 1990s. African Americans are also leaving cities where there is the greatest concentration and often moving back to the south.
Such trends will be tracked minutely ahead of the 2012 election. Dr Frey says: “Some of the best demographers in the country are politicians.”