The multi-ethnic Obama coalition once seemed unbreakable. With overwhelming support from non-white voters, demographic trends pointed to an emerging Democratic majority. But then, after the 2016 election, a surprising thing happened: the rainbow coalition began to dissolve.

Today, the Democratic Party can no longer count on unified minority support. Democrats now hold a (historically) modest 47-point advantage among black voters, the lowest Gallup has ever recorded. Among Hispanics, the advantage is just 12 points. Then there’s the nation’s fastest growing minority group: Asians. In April, Pew reported that just four in ten approved of President Biden, down from nearly six in ten  in 2022.

Observers have offered varying explanations for these trends. One is that minorities are more likely to feel the effects of progressives’ soft-on-crime policies. Another is inflation, currently the top concern of Hispanic voters. And then one has to account for the celebrity charisma of Donald Trump, who—as evidenced by his recent rally in the south Bronx—appeals to non-white, blue-collar voters in a way that no other GOP standard bearer has.

However, a more systemic factor is also driving minorities’ political evolution: the diminishing value of using racial appeals in a multi-ethnic democracy premised on equality of opportunity over equality of outcomes. Put simply, it becomes practically impossible to hold a diverse coalition of minority groups together while embracing policies that benefit some of those groups at the expense of others.

The politics of affirmative action offer a compelling recent example of this evolution. While racial preferences have long been unpopular with conservative whites, now many Democrats and minorities are turning against them, too. In the past, battles over preferences focused on middle-class white students, whose academic qualifications were only slightly above average. Today, however, Asian students are the primary losers in affirmative-action admissions regimes. Many Asian students are low-income recent immigrants (or the children of immigrants) and have exceptional academic records. Yet, because they currently are overrepresented in higher education, they wind up getting rejected in favor of underrepresented, and less-qualified, minorities.

In a new study, we find that the changing demographics of affirmative action are making it harder for Democrats to maintain their multi-ethnic coalition. In the study, we asked a large sample of Americans whether they favor affirmative action programs. We told some respondents that these programs would disadvantage white applicants and told others that they would come at the expense of Asian ones.

Unsurprisingly, we found universal opposition to affirmative action among Republicans. But among Democrats, we found a significant crack in the Obama coalition. Most Democrats favored affirmative action when told that it would harm whites. Yet, when Democrats learned that it was Asians who would lose out, a majority (55 percent) rejected racial preferences, including 63 percent of non-black Democrats (Hispanics, whites, and Asians). 

Affirmative action is just one example of the Democrats’ dilemma. The party’s progressive wing has reflexively opposed merit-based education policies when they would result in unequal outcomes among racial groups, including: selective public exam schools, early Algebra and honors coursework, and standardized tests and accountability. These progressive totems do not reflect the views of many minority voters, especially immigrant parents who see educational excellence as their children’s path to the American Dream.

Yet, rather than offer non-white voters a unifying message and a positive policy agenda that emphasizes upward mobility for all Americans, many Democrats are trying to secure minority support by emphasizing systemic racism and grievance-based identity politics—themes that President Joe Biden emphasized in his recent visit to Morehouse University, a historically black college in Atlanta. 

In our view, this approach won’t work for much longer. Intermarriage in the U.S. has been on the rise since 1980, with nearly one in five newlyweds today having a spouse of a different race. Indian Americans now have the highest median household income out of any ethnic group. Asian women are outearning white men. The more diverse and inter-connected the nation becomes, the less race-based political appeals will work. Indeed, they will increasingly backfire.  

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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