Missing White Voters Still Won’t Save You


(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Last week, we published a critique of Sean Trende’s thesis — now widely adopted among Republicans resisting immigration reform and other minority-friendly political moves — that “missing” white voters were the key demographic of the 2012 election and, if mobilized, will be the key ingredient for GOP revival. Trende has now written a reply to our critique that purports to show that we err in downgrading the importance of missing white voters.

We beg to differ. His reply leaves the basic points we made untouched. So-called missing white voters were to a large extent a product of a relatively low turnout election that affected both minorities and whites. So the idea that it will somehow be possible to add missing whites back into the voting pool without also adding missing minorities back in seems fanciful — tantamount to calling for a whites-only high turnout election. That’s not likely to happen and that’s why Republicans would be better off dealing with the basic facts of demographic change — i.e., that every Presidential election in the future is likely to see a 2 percentage point increase in the share of minority voters and a 2 percentage point decrease in white voters — rather than putting their faith in a massive mobilization of white voters, “missing” and otherwise.

Trende’s first point in his reply is to argue we misinterpreted him — that he really wasn’t making that big a deal out of missing white voters and that the focus of our criticism is unfair. Well, it’s a bit late for that. When you title the lead part of your analysis, “The Case of the Missing White Voters, Revisited,” proclaim that “the most salient demographic change from 2008 to 2012 was the drop in white voters,” and have “missing white voters” continually cited as a justification for a continued GOP focus on whites, you must expect that people will take that part of your analysis seriously indeed. And we did.

Trende goes on to assert that missing white voters are especially significant because they were highly likely to be working class whites in northern blue collar counties—and therefore presumably exceptionally friendly to the GOP. This is speculative and perhaps just plain wrong. As Nate Cohn has pointed out:

Republican opportunities with “missing white voters” are pretty marginal. Just as the GOP can’t erase Obama’s margin with Hispanics, it can’t assume that every missing white voter was a conservative. According to the Census, 40 percent of the drop-off was from 18-24 year old whites—not easy targets for the GOP. The “missing white voters” are also missing in most of the battleground states, just like Hispanics. Turnout was flat or up in some of the whitest battlegrounds, like Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. Obama’s success in these high turnout, white areas calls into question whether their missing compatriots were especially GOP-friendly.

Trende goes on to argue that the missing white voters can be mobilized but the missing minority voters somehow can’t. This is not convincing. The fact remains — which Trende did not challenge — that turnout rates, based on exit poll data, fell about equally among whites and minorities (3.4 vs. 3.2 percentage points). It’s also true that the falloff from projected to actual numbers of voters — the so-called missing voters –was the same in percentage terms among both whites and minorities (6.2 vs. 6.1 percent). So 2012 was a relatively low turnout election that significantly affected both whites and minorities. Trende wants to believe that only the missing white voters that sat out that election are significant and that only they can be mobilized in the future. Possible, but not likely. Prudent political strategists might want to place their bets elsewhere.

He then switches data sets to the Census Current Population Survey (CPS) data on voter turnout (not used in his original analysis). These data do show more turnout decline among whites than minorities. But these data also show less turnout decline than we know happened in the real world: 1.8 vs. 3.4 percentage points. Moreover, if Trende wants to place his bets on the CPS then he is also placing his bets on a universe where support for Romney was lower than estimated in the exit polls. That is because the CPS data show a race-ethnic distribution of voters that is more heavily white than the exit polls (74 vs. 72 percent). To make the CPS distribution consistent with the actual election outcome, Romney’s lead among whites would have to be reduced from 20 to around 16 points. One senses that this is not Trende’s preferred universe.

The author’s reply also dwells on the idea that private equity mogul Romney kept the missing whites at home and that the magic elixir—especially for downscale whites–would have been a sturdy populist like ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. We are skeptical. Pawlenty’s policies are not different fundamentally from Romney’s: cut taxes on the rich and hope the benefits trickle down while slashing spending on social programs that actually benefit lower income Americans (most of whom are white). And call it populist. There’s not a hint from Trende or any of the other advocates of this approach of what new policies Republicans should adopt to appeal to downscale white voters.

A final comment: it seems to us that Trende is arguing that it will be possible to reverse the long-time trend toward a increase in the nonwhite share of the electorate that has been going on for decades. That’s what a lot of Republicans hoped for in 2012–they argued that the nonwhite share of the electorate had peaked in 2008 and that the Obama campaign couldn’t possibly recreate the sort of excitement that existed then and/or that a lot of nonwhite voters had become disillusioned with Obama. We know what happened. More significantly, the steady increase in the nonwhite share of the electorate has occurred in relatively high and relatively low turnout elections. Exit poll data, Census data and just a simple examination of the racial makeup of various age groups in 2012 indicate that this trend is almost certain to continue in 2016 and beyond.

That’s the real lesson Republicans should be taking from the 2012 election. A different mix of voters demands a different strategy, not a quixotic quest for missing white voters. At least if they’re interested in winning the Presidency any time soon.