A lot has changed since Washington state Democrats last got to pick their preferred presidential contender, and I don’t just mean that the party switched from a caucus to a primary.
Washington is among the fastest-growing states in the nation, and there’s been a lot of population shuffling over the past four years. Thousands have moved here from other parts, while many others have moved away. Some, of course, have died. And each year, thousands of young people reach the voting age of 18.
Add that all up, and the state’s electorate looks different today than it did in 2016. But which of the two remaining viable candidates will it help more: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Vice President Joe Biden?
Sanders won Washington in 2016, and after somewhat disappointing results against a surging Biden on Super Tuesday, it’s considered critical for Sanders to repeat his victory here.
Washington’s total voting-elegible population — in other words, citizens age 18 and up — stands at about 5.5 million in 2020. Over the past four years, that represents an increase of about 369,000, or roughly 7%. But not every group has grown at the same rate.
Generational divide is one of the key demographic factors when it comes to voting. Sanders, famously, has passionate support among the young. Biden does much better with older voters.
In terms of age, the trend in Washington is clear: Seniors have grown faster than any other group. The population 65 and older that is eligible to vote grew by 16% from 2016 to 2020, which is around twice as fast as 18-to-34 year olds.
This trend isn’t unique to Washington. Across the country, the massive generation of boomers is aging past age 65, causing the number of seniors to balloon.
Will this help out Biden in Washington? Maybe, but keep in mind that older voters are the most likely to identify as Republican, and Republicans won’t be voting in Washington’s Democratic primary. So the increase in seniors in Washington might not be that big of a boost to Biden.
And while seniors grew fastest, the 50- to 64-year-old bracket — another strong Biden demographic — was the only age group to shrink, down by about 2%.
Also, 18- to 34-year-olds who are eligible to vote remain the state’s largest age group, at nearly 1.7 million. The key for Sanders will be a very high turnout among these young voters.
Like age, race is another major demographic determinant in how people vote. Sanders has done better than Biden in states with large Hispanic populations. Biden has done better in states where the Black population is significant.
Census numbers show that the state’s largest voting-eligible racial group — white people — grew by roughly 3% (about 125,000 people) from 2016 to 2020. All the other racial-ethnic groups grew at a significantly faster rate.
The voting-eligible Hispanic population grew by 29%, which is around four times faster than the total population growth. There are now around 467,000 Hispanic Washingtonians who are eligible to vote, an increase of 106,000 since 2016.
That could be good news for the Sanders camp. The Vermont senator has successfully courted Hispanic voters, who are much more likely to identify as Democrat than Republican. Sanders’ strength among Hispanics helped him with big wins in Nevada and California, and kept him close to Biden in Texas.
Census data shows that in Washington, three out of four Hispanic voters are of Mexican ethnicity. In this regard, Washington’s Hispanic population is demographically similar to Nevada’s.
Washington’s voting-eligible Asian population, now standing at 437,000, has also grown fast in the past four years, up 24%. That increase represents an additional 85,000 potential voters.
This might be a benefit for Sanders because exit polling from Super Tuesday showed he had the most support among Asian voters, who are strongly Democratic. However, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also did well among Asian voters on Super Tuesday, and he has since dropped out of the race and thrown his support behind Biden.
Black voters, the most reliably Democratic group, represent a smaller share of Washington’s electorate, numbering about 195,000 in 2020. Since 2016, the number of voting-eligible Black Washingtonians grew by 11%, or about 19,000 people. Biden could get a small boost from this increase. Black voters came out in force for the former vice president on Super Tuesday, fueling his current lead in the delegate count.
A far as I know, there is no political polling of people who identify as multiracial. But this group is fairly substantial in Washington, with an estimated 224,000 multiracial residents who are eligible to vote in 2020 — that’s up by 15% since 2016. Multiracial people are far and away the state’s youngest racial-ethnic group with a median age of 21 years. Because Sanders’ greatest strength is with young voters, this increase would most likely benefit him.
Something to keep in mind is that voter turnout varies between demographic groups. Older people are a lot more likely to vote than young adults. Black and white voter turnout tends to be higher than that of Asian or Hispanic people.
But demographics aside, Biden has a couple of important advantages. Biden is riding a wave of momentum after his strong Super Tuesday showing. And Washington’s switch from a caucus to a primary is also likely to favor Biden. In 2016, Sanders handily won the state’s caucus, while Hillary Clinton carried our (nonbinding) primary.
A note on the data used in this column: The most recent census numbers available for the voting-eligible population demographics are for 2018. So, in order to write this column, I started by looking at how the numbers changed from 2016 to 2018. Then, I estimated the numbers for 2020 based on the assumption that the rate of change from 2016 to 2018 remained the same.