Yes, the Missing Whites Matter

Yes, the Missing Whites Matter

By Sean Trende - July 12, 2013

In my recent four-part series on demographic changes, the 2012 elections and immigration reform, I suggested that census data and exit polls reveal that some 6 million white voters opted to sit out last November’s election. The data show these non-voters were not primarily Southerners or evangelicals, but were located in Northeast, Midwest and Southwest. Mainly, they fit the profile of “Reagan Democrats” or, more recently, a Ross Perot supporter. For these no-shows, Mitt Romney was not a natural fit.

I drew the conclusion that one path forward for the Republican Party could involve, in part, reaching out to these voters by altering the GOP’s economic platform and messaging. There are still valid questions that flow from this: How much do Republicans have to change to win these voters? Do they pay a price with upper-income whites for such a shift? Can they make these changes and still be Republicans? What is the best path forward? These are great questions for further debate, but my point in the series was simply that there really are multiple ways to skin the electoral cat, and that the much-uttered meme “Republicans must pass the Gang of Eight bill if they ever hope to win another national election” is sorely lacking, at best.

Some critics have not been content to argue these points. They have mischaracterized them as urging Republicans to ignore non-white voters. They then “double down,” if you will, by attacking their own mischaracterization.

The headline over a blog item on the site ThinkProgress is a case in point: “No, Republicans, ‘Missing’ White Voters Won’t Save You.” The opening paragraphs of that item, written by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz, frames my series as the most influential argument supporting a strategy of abandoning non-white voters.

But I actually concur with their title. “These voters were not enough to cost Romney the election, standing alone,” I wrote. This is not a point that anyone who read my pieces could have missed. It was placed in a separate, numbered subheading -- in boldface type. I make similar points throughout the series, and show “outreach” scenarios that are probably more effective options for Republicans.

The larger problem with the Teixeira-Abramowitz piece is that when you cut through the rhetoric, my core thesis still stands. Even taking every word in their piece as true, it remains the case that there were well over 5 million fewer white voters than would have been reasonably expected in 2012. This analysis is based on 2008 turnout and population growth. That’s not really in doubt.

Nor is it a mystery which type of white voter stayed home last year. These no-shows fit a profile. They turn out to be the downscale whites whom Teixeira has previously insisted Democrats must woo. If these voters had turned out, they probably would have improved Romney’s share of the vote. This is the crux of my argument, and the only real mystery is why some people find this conclusion so upsetting.

Teixeira and Abramowitz focus on the fact that there were also “missing” non-whites, which is true. There’s nothing “misleading” here. It is made clear by the chart in the middle of Part 1’s first page. Someone could construct a reasonable argument from this that Democrats can counter any Republican surge with missing white voters by bringing these non-whites back. I don’t think that’s likely the case, as I think it would be hard to find a candidate with a substantially stronger appeal to non-whites and better get-out-the-vote organization than Barack Obama. But it is plausible.

Teixeira and Abramowitz, however, try to go a step further. They argue that these “missing” non-whites negate the importance of the missing whites outright. They look at a different data set -- the CPS data, which I’ll just call the “census data” -- and conclude that the decline among all groups was due to the same factor: lack of interest in the election. If this were true, the only way these “missing whites” might return is if the “missing non-whites” also return -- and that would result in no net improvement for Republicans.

But this isn’t what happened. Rather than switching to a different data set, let’s look at what the data in my piece show:

Different groups stayed home at different rates. White turnout in 2012 was 6.2 percent below projections (5.5 percent using Teixeira and Abramowitz’s alternate projection of white voters); African-American turnout was 3.8 percent below projections; and so forth. Moreover, the number of “missing” Hispanics and Asians is probably overstated. As I noted, my projected turnout calculations don’t account for the disproportionate share of the “new” adults in these groups who were non-citizens, and I’m assuming a higher rate of voter participation (55 percent) than we see from these groups. As I also noted, the large mass of missing “other” voters is probably a rounding issue. This isn’t a minor point; those voters represent 60 percent of all the non-whites that Teixeira and Abramowitz are discussing.

Even within ethnic groups, voters stayed home at different rates. For whites, the drop-off in voting was concentrated mostly among those living in Northern, blue-collar counties (the type of places that voted for Perot in 1992). This group responded to the campaign in a different way than other whites, and other racial/ethnic groups, across the country did.

The basic point here is that if Republicans had run a candidate more like working-class ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and less like the private equity mogul/ex-Massachusetts governor whom the GOP ended up nominating, these voters might have been more likely to vote. “We built this” might have corralled the small business-owner vote, but probably didn’t do much for workers. I suppose that you can construct an argument that the missing “non-whites” would have turned out in response to a similar move by Republicans, but I think it’s hard to put that together. These really are two separate issues.

Their other objection is fairly minor and a bit technical (bear with me for four paragraphs). They claim I project too many white voters for 2012, thereby inflating the number of “missing” whites. But this isn’t about an error in my math, it’s about competing data sets.

I extrapolated the growth of the total adult population from a different census publication called the “intercensal estimates.” This is explained in the very first piece on the subject. The reason was simple: The census data Teixeira and Abramowitz use, which looks at adults who are eligible to vote, weren’t available when the first piece ran in November of last year, and actually hadn’t yet come out when I re-ran the calculations for this series in early April. I’d re-estimated the turnout data by the time of publication for a separate piece pointing out the peculiarities of the census data (shortly after the data came out in May), but it didn’t occur to me to go back and also use the data to re-estimate population growth. It’s not a huge difference: We end up with about 5.4 million missing whites, instead of 6.1 million. But that’s still a lot of voters.

More importantly, if we’re going to switch data for re-estimating our projected turnout for whites, we should probably re-estimate all of our projections using this data. As it turns out, the CPS data actually show a larger decline in the white vote than do the exit polls.*

If we use the census data throughout for all of our projections, we actually end up observing 5.9 million fewer whites than anticipated. We also end up with only about 1.3 million missing non-whites, rather than the 2.6 million missing non-whites from my original calculations, taken from the exit polls.** Again, many of these are Hispanics and Asians, who in reality have lower registration and participation rates than our 55 percent estimate. You can actually use the census data to estimate these things in multiple ways (this runs into some of the peculiarities of the census data I mentioned), but they all end up pointing back to the same conclusion: About 6 million fewer whites voted than we would have expected.

My conclusion is that Republicans should pay attention to the concerns of the millions of alienated working-class voters who sat out the 2012 election because the GOP needs them -- not at the exclusion of minority voters, many of whom are also working class, but in addition to them -- to form a winning coalition in the future.


*In fact, since the CPS data measure eligible adults (e.g., it excludes non-citizens) as opposed to all adults, Teixeira and Abramowitz probably should have used an expected turnout number larger than 55 percent. Using expected white participation of about 65 percent would result in the addition of about 150,000 missing white voters. If we also use the CPS data to estimate our baseline, we end up with . . . 6.1 million missing whites.

**The CPS data have the benefit of being published to tenths, eliminating the rounding concerns. As expected, the number of missing “other” voters drops dramatically. 

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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