The new Census voter turnout data were released on Wednesday and are full of interesting findings that underscore the extent of the demographic challenge for the GOP. They also show that the exit polls weren’t exaggerating the impact of ongoing demographic change on the electorate, despite the skepticism or perhaps hopes of some
To begin with, these new data confirm what years of exit polling has been telling us about the diversification of the US electorate. According to the Census data, the share of minority voters increased by 2.6 percentage points between 2008 and 2012, very similar to the exit polls, which showed a 2.3 point increase. The two surveys also told the same story between 2004 and 2008, when the Census showed a 2.9 point increase in the minority vote and the exits indicated a 2.8 point increase.
The Census data also confirm that black turnout was higher than white turnout in 2012 (66.2 percent for blacks vs. 64.1 percent for whites), the first time the Census data have shown this result. It is certainly an open question whether blacks will continue to turn out at a rate that matches or exceeds white turnout, but it is worth noting that there has been a steadily rising trend of higher black turnout since the 1996 election, which of course considerably precedes Obama’s arrival on the scene.
While blacks have closed the turnout gap with whites, the same was not true of Hispanics and Asians, who continued to lag about 16 points behind whites. Even with these relatively low turnout rates, these two groups (especially Hispanics) have been steadily increasing their share of voters over time, and will continue to do so in the future, thanks to their increasing share of the eligible voter population.
The current turnout gap between these two groups and whites is a double-edged sword for the GOP. On the one hand, it helps blunt the already substantial ongoing impact of demographic change on Republican electoral fortunes. On the other, it constitutes a potential tranche of votes which, if tapped by successful mobilization efforts, could make their situation much worse than it already it. The fact that Asian and Hispanic turnout haven’t accelerated yet should be cold comfort for them. Not so long ago, many commentators doubted whether black turnout could ever match, much less exceed, white turnout. But now it has happened.
Finally, these data should put to bed the idea that “missing white voters,” and not rising diversity, fueled the Democrats’ 2012 victory. The Census data estimate that there were 2 million fewer white voters in 2012 than 2008. If these missing voters had all shown up, and assuming these missing whites would have voted as other whites did, who supported Romney by about 20 points, he would have netted around 400,000 votes. Not quite enough: he lost to Obama by 5 million votes!
Looked at another way, if white turnout had not declined at all in 2012 and had instead matched black turnout levels, there would have been an additional 3 million white voters, which would have netted Romney 600,000 votes. Still not enough! In fact, Romney would have needed an additional 25 million white voters in the electorate to net the 5 million votes he needed just to tie Obama. To say this is implausible considerably understates the case.
Time for Republicans to wake up and smell the coffee. Diversity is here, it’s growing in every election and no amount of wishful thinking will make it go away.