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The Case of the Missing White Voters

By Sean Trende - November 8, 2012

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By Sean Trende

One of the more intriguing narratives for election 2012 was proposed by political scientist Brendan Nyhan fairly early on: that it was "Bizarro 2004." The parallels to that year certainly were eerie: An incumbent adored by his base but with middling approval ratings nationally faces off against an uncharismatic, wishy-washy official from Massachusetts. The race is tight during the summer until the president breaks open a significant lead after his convention. Then, after a tepid first debate for the incumbent, the contest tightens, bringing the opposition tantalizingly close to a win, but not quite close enough.

The Election Day returns actually continued the similarities. George W. Bush won by 2.4 percent of the popular vote, which is probably about what Obama’s victory margin will be once all the ballots are counted. Republicans in 2004 won some surprising Senate seats, and picked up a handful of House seats as well. The GOP was cheered, claiming a broad mandate as a result of voters’ decision to ratify clear, unified Republican control of Congress and the presidency for the first time since 1928. As Bush famously put it, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”

Democrats, like Republicans today, were despondent. Aside from having a president they loathed in the White House for four more years, they were terrified by what seemed to be an emerging Republican majority. John Kerry had, after all, hit all of his turnout targets, only to be swamped by the Republican re-election effort. “Values voters” was the catchphrase, and an inordinate number of keystrokes were expended trying to figure out how, as Howard Dean had memorably put it before the election, Democrats could reconnect with “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”

For Republicans, that despair now comes from an electorate that seems to have undergone a sea change. In the 2008 final exit polls (unavailable online), the electorate was 75 percent white, 12.2 percent African-American, 8.4 percent Latino, with 4.5 percent distributed to other ethnicities. We’ll have to wait for this year’s absolute final exit polls to come in to know the exact estimate of the composition this time, but right now it appears to be pegged at about 72 percent white, 13 percent black, 10 percent Latino and 5 percent “other.”

Obviously, this surge in the non-white vote is troubling to Republicans, who are increasingly almost as reliant upon the white vote to win as Democrats are on the non-white vote. With the white vote decreasing as a share of the electorate over time, it becomes harder and harder for Republicans to prevail.

This supposed surge in minority voting has sparked discussions about the GOP’s renewed need to draw in minority voters, especially Latinos, usually by agreeing to comprehensive immigration reform. Continuing the “Bizarro 2004” theme, Democrats are encouraging the GOP to move leftward, just as the 2004 GOP insisted that Democrats needed to abandon their opposition to the Iraq War, adopt less liberal economics, and shift more to the right on social issues in order to win. 

Setting aside completely the sometimes-considerable merits of various immigration reform measures, I think these analyses are off base. First, there are real questions about the degree to which immigration policies -- rather than deeper issues such as income and ideology -- drive the rift between the GOP and Latinos. Remember, passage of Simpson-Mazzoli in 1986 was actually followed two years later by one of the worst GOP showings among Latinos in recent history.

Moreover, the simple fact is that the Democrats aren’t going to readily let Republicans get to their left on the issue in an attempt to poach an increasing portion of the Democratic base. If the GOP embraces things such as the DREAM Act, the Democrats can always up the ante. There are plenty of other issues on which Latinos agree with the GOP, but at a bare minimum the party will have to learn to sharply change its rhetoric on immigration before it can credibly make the case for these policies.


But most importantly, the 2012 elections actually weren’t about a demographic explosion with non-white voters. Instead, they were about a large group of white voters not showing up.

As of this writing, Barack Obama has received a bit more than 60 million votes. Mitt Romney has received 57 million votes. Although the gap between Republicans and Democrats has closed considerably since 2008, Romney is still running about 2.5 million votes behind John McCain; the gap has closed simply because Obama is running about 9 million votes behind his 2008 totals.

Of course, there are an unknown number of ballots outstanding. If we guesstimate the total at 7 million (3 million in California, 1.5 million or so in Oregon and Washington, and another 2.5 million or so spread throughout the country), that would bring the total number of votes cast in 2012 to about 125 million: 5 million votes shy of the number cast four years ago.

With this base line, and armed with the exit-poll data, we can get a pretty good estimate of how many whites, blacks, and Latinos cast ballots in both 2008 and 2012. Assuming the 72/13/10/5 percentage split described above for 2012, that would equate to about 91.6 million votes cast by whites, 16.6 million by blacks, 12.7 million by Latinos, with the balance of 6.3 million votes spread among other groups.

Compare this with 2008, when the numbers were 98.6 million whites, 16.3 million blacks, 11 million Latinos, and 5.9 million from other groups.

In other words, if our underlying assumption -- that there are 7 million votes outstanding -- is correct, then the African-American vote only increased by about 300,000 votes, or 0.2 percent, from 2008 to 2012. The Latino vote increased by a healthier 1.7 million votes, while the “other” category increased by about 470,000 votes.

This is nothing to sneeze at, but in terms of the effect on the electorate, it is dwarfed by the decline in the number of whites. Again, if our assumption about the total number of votes cast is correct, almost 7 million fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008. This isn’t readily explainable by demographic shifts either; although whites are declining as a share of the voting-age population, their raw numbers are not.

Moreover, we should have expected these populations to increase on their own, as a result of overall population growth. If we build in an estimate for the growth of the various voting-age populations over the past four years and assume 55 percent voter turnout, we find ourselves with about 8 million fewer white voters than we would expect given turnout in the 2008 elections and population growth.

Had the same number of white voters cast ballots in 2012 as did in 2008, the 2012 electorate would have been about 74 percent white, 12 percent black, and 9 percent Latino (the same result occurs if you build in expectations for population growth among all these groups). In other words, the reason this electorate looked so different from the 2008 electorate is almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home. The other groups increased their vote, but by less than we would have expected simply from population growth.

Put another way: The increased share of the minority vote as a percent of the total vote is not the result of a large increase in minorities in the numerator, it is a function of many fewer whites in the denominator.

So who were these whites and why did they stay home? My first instinct was that they might be conservative evangelicals turned off by Romney’s Mormonism or moderate past. But the decline didn’t seem to be concentrated in Southern states with high evangelical populations.

So instead, I looked at my current home state of Ohio, which has counted almost all of its votes (absentees are counted first here). The following map shows how turnout presently stands relative to 2008. The brightest red counties met or exceeded 2008 turnout. Each gradation of lighter red represents a 1 percent drop in the percentage of votes cast from 2008. Blue counties are at less than 90 percent of the 2008 vote.

We can see that the counties clustered around Columbus in the center of the state turned out in full force, as did the suburban counties near Cincinnati in the southwest. These heavily Republican counties are the growing areas of the state, filled with white-collar workers.

Where things drop off are in the rural portions of Ohio, especially in the southeast. These represent areas still hard-hit by the recession. Unemployment is high there, and the area has seen almost no growth in recent years.

My sense is these voters were unhappy with Obama. But his negative ad campaign relentlessly emphasizing Romney’s wealth and tenure at Bain Capital may have turned them off to the Republican nominee as well. The Romney campaign exacerbated this through the challenger’s failure to articulate a clear, positive agenda to address these voters’ fears, and self-inflicted wounds like the “47 percent” gaffe. Given a choice between two unpalatable options, these voters simply stayed home.

We’ll have a better sense of how this holds up when the final exit-poll data is released, and we can generate some very detailed crosstabs. And it may be that my estimate of the number of votes outstanding is low, though I think it is more likely to be high.

Of course, none of this is intended to place any sort of asterisk on Obama’s win: Some of these missing voters might well have voted for him had they opted to participate in the election. Moreover, there are still huge reservoirs of African-Americans and Latinos who don’t register and vote every election. Elections are decided on who shows up, not on who might have shown up.

But in terms of interpreting elections, and analyzing the future, the substantial drop-off in the white vote is a significant data point. Had Latino and African-American voters turned out in massive numbers, we might really be talking about a realignment of sorts, although we would have to see if the Democrats could sustain it with someone other than Obama atop the ticket (they could not do so in 2010). As it stands, the bigger puzzle for figuring out the path of American politics is who these non-voters are, why they stayed home, and whether they might be reactivated in 2016 (by either party). 

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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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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