Minority Turnout & the Racial Breakdown of Polls

Minority Turnout & the Racial Breakdown of Polls

By Sean Trende - August 29, 2012

Why is Obama so confident?

A lot of pundits are asking that question these days. New York Magazine's Jon Chait set forth a nice summary of varying hypotheses in a blog post Tuesday.

Most of the arguments are really just speculation about the motivations behind various candidate moves. For example, it may well be, as Chait suggests, that Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate because he felt he needed to shake up the race.

On the other hand, one could just as easily speculate that Romney was confident of victory (pre-convention undecideds do, after all, tend to break toward the challenger), that he wanted a vice president who knew the entitlement issue well, since that reform would likely consume most of a Romney administration’s first term.

Or it could be that Romney’s camp knows people vote for president, not vice president, and that he simply chose the running mate he liked the most. This is, after all, the explanation set forth by Team Romney, and we don’t have any particular reason to disregard it.

Regardless, I do want to focus on Chait’s proposed explanation for the Obama campaign’s supposed confidence, because it is an increasingly common critique of the polls:

“The best explanation I can muster is that the polls are assuming a much different, and more GOP-friendly, electorate than either party. ABC’s poll assumes that 78 percent of registered voters are white. That is . . . a whole lot of white people. The white share of the electorate has been dropping steadily for more than twenty years -- from 87 percent in 1992 to 83 percent in 1996 to 81 percent in 2000, 77 percent in 2004, and 74 percent four years ago. Ron Brownstein’s recent reporting suggests that both campaigns expect an electorate that’s about 74 percent white. The same problem seems to appear in numerous other polls. Many of them don’t release their racial breakdowns, but those that do seem to imply electorates far whiter than the campaigns are banking on.”

There have been multiple attempts to explain why certain polls should be ignored, or dismissed, this cycle (see: “you should ignore all things Rasmussen”; “you should ignore all things PPP”; “you should ignore polls with ‘too many’ Democrats”). Like those arguments, this particular one is flawed. There are four reasons for this:

First, as Chait repeatedly concedes, we don’t know what the ultimate electorate will look like this November. That really should be the end of the argument -- if we don’t know what the racial breakdown is going to be, it’s hard to criticize the pollsters for under-sampling minorities. After all, almost all pollsters weight their base sample of adults to CPS (current population survey) estimates to ensure the base sample reflects the actual population; after that, the data simply are what they are.

It’s true that the minority share of the electorate increased every year from 1996 through 2008. But there’s a reason that 1996 is always used as a start date: After declining every election from 1980 through 1988, the white share of the vote suddenly ticked up two points in 1992. In other words, these things aren’t one-way ratchets (and while there is no H. Ross Perot this year, the underlying white working-class angst that propelled his candidacy is very much present, as writers on the left repeatedly have observed).

While one can certainly make the case that the minority share of the electorate will be the same in 2012 as in 2008, or even greater than 2008 (more implausible, as I argue here), one can also look at things such as low Latino enthusiasm and the disproportionate impact the recession has had on minority registration, and suspect that it might fall.

The latter factor is especially important -- the unusually white registered-voter samples might simply reflect the fact that Latino registration dropped from 11.6 million in 2008 to 10.9 million in 2010. There’s time for the campaigns to turn this around, but it isn’t an auspicious sign for those expecting improved minority turnout, especially if Democrats are correct about the likely effect of new voter-identification laws in some states.

Second, while we like to think of race as a “hard” demographic (rather than an attitude, like political affiliation), the truth is more complex. Mark Blumenthal of Pollster explains:

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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