You've probably seen lots of post-election speculation in recent months pointing to the conclusion that it just gets worse from here on out for the Republicans: The country is getting less and less white, and older white voters get replaced by young new non-white voters, the Republican path to victory (at least at the presidential level) just gets narrower and narrower.
It's not speculation anymore, though; on Wednesday, the Census Bureau released a thorough quantitative demonstration of how the electorate is changing. The data in the Current Population Survey (pdf) reveal rising black turnout and falling white turnout in 2012, but even if turnout rates shift to a more typical pattern without Barack Obama on the ballot in 2016, the constantly increasing non-white share of the population means that the GOP's door moves a little closer to slamming shut each year.
The marquee number from their study, that's been getting most of the press, is that this is the first election ever where African-American turnout exceeded turnout among non-Hispanic whites. As you can see in the excerpted chart above, 66.2 percent of eligible black voters turned out, while 64.1 percent of white voters did so. This shouldn't come as a total surprise, though, given not just exit polls (Pew Research predicted that back in December, just using data from exit polling), but also that some of the states where Obama's performance improved the greatest from 2008 to 2012 were the ones with the largest black populations (like Louisiana and Misssissippi).
That might lead to some worries that in a normal presidential year (one that doesn't have an African-American president on the ballot, and where voter suppression efforts are less conspicuous and thus perhaps less of a motivating factor), black turnout might fall off. The folks at Pew point out, however, that the rise in black turnout has been a steady one, predating Obama's candidacies, going all the way back to 1996.
In addition, you can see the larger trend emerging by looking at the changes in the raw number of votes among different races. According to the Census Bureau's release:
In comparison to the election of 2008, about 1.7 million additional Black voters reported going to the polls in 2012, as did about 1.4 million additional Hispanics and about 550,00 additional Asians. The number of non-Hispanic White voters decreased by about 2 million between 2008 and 2012. Since 1996, this is the only example of a race group showing a decrease in net voting from one presidential election to the next, and it indicates that the 2012 voting population expansion came primarily from minority voters.We'll dig into more of the details over the fold:
Hispanic voters have been getting much of the attention in the post-election period (particularly as the Republicans try to figure out how best to court them without pissing them off more), but as Pew Research points out, Hispanics actually continued to "punch below their weight" in 2012. Hispanic turnout rates were down from 2008, from 49.9 percent to 48.0 percent. While the number of Hispanic voters participating was at an all-time high (11.2 million, which is 1.4 million higher than in 2008), the growth in eligible but non-voting Hispanics was even greater (12.3 million, up by 2.3 million from 2008).
Nevertheless, even with poor turnout rates, Hispanics become a more and more important share of the electorate, simply by virtue of population replacement rates. Hispanics are 17 percent of the total population but 24 percent of the under 18 population, with 800,000 young Hispanics, most of whom are voter-eligible, turning 18 every year. But we can't rest on our laurels; if we want to focus on turning Texas and Arizona into swing states in the near-term (and Florida and Nevada into blue states), that turnout disparity is what needs to be addressed.
White voters, conversely, continue to punch above their weight, despite their falling turnout: In 2012, according to the Census figures, non-Hispanic whites were 71.1 percent of the eligible electorate, but 73.7 percent of the voting population. Note how much that's fallen over the years, though: in 2008, they were 73.4 percent of the eligible electorate, but 76.3 percent of the voting population. (And all the way back in 1996, they were 82.5 percent of the voting population!) Meanwhile, even with the falloff in Hispanic turnout, Hispanics grew from 7.4 percent of the voting population in 2008 to 8.4 percent of the voting population to 2012, simply by virtue of becoming a significantly larger percentage of the overall eligible population over those four years.
That trend looks to only accelerate if you project it out over future decades. An electorate in 2012 that was 26.3 percent non-white overall is an all-time high, but that's nothing compared with where we'll be in 2020 (projected 37.2 percent) or 2060 (54.8 percent!). If Republicans can continue to pull in only 17 percent of the non-white vote (as they did with Mitt Romney) ... well, you can probably do the math. Even in the near-term, each passing cycle ratchets the electorate one more click in the Democratic direction; as the New Republic's Nate Cohn puts it:
If the non-white share of the voting eligible population declines by another 2 points, as expected, then the 2016 electorate will about as diverse as it was in 2012, even if turnout rates return to 2004 levels. The Obama coalition is not going away, even if elevated minority turnout rates are gone for good.One somewhat disappointing finding from the Census report is that youth turnout seems to have fallen off precipitously from 2008 to 2012: down to 41.2 percent among persons 18-to-24, from 48.5 percent in 2008. Or, as political scientist Michael McDonald suggests, maybe that should be taken as good news, considering that the supposedly once-in-a-lifetime Obama coalition from 2008 essentially held together in 2012 even without anywhere near the same level of youth participation. (Though he also points out that voting, while young, is habit-forming, and Democrats need to redouble their efforts to lock down a favorably-disposed generation while they're still persuadable.)
It's worth noting that the falloff in youth participation wasn't limited to non-white youths; it was consistent across the races. The Census Bureau's report points out that voting rates among non-Hispanic white, black, and Hispanic voters in the 18-to-24 category all experienced statistically significant declines. The only group that experienced a statistically-significant gain in voting rates were black voters 45 and older.
How momentous is that shift among older black voters? That can be seen in the state-by-state participation rates. The Census Bureau reported that the five states with the highest participation rates in 2012 were the District of Columbia, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Massachusetts are civic-minded states that always are near the top in terms of turnout ... but the District of Columbia and Mississippi certainly haven't performed that way in previous years. What stands out about those two, of course, is that they are the states with the two highest percentages of African-Americans.
While women aren't becoming a larger share of the population (that tends to stay pretty fixed in the 50-51 percent range, thanks to their slightly longer life spans than men), there still continues to be a voter participation gap according to gender that slightly favors women. Women have voted at a higher rate than men in every election since 1996; in 2012, that spread was about 4 percent. The spread is more pronounced among African-Americans, with black women voting at an 8.7 percent rate higher than black men. (That, unfortunately, may have at least something to do with our current laws on felon voting rights.)
Finally, there's one caveat: The Census data shouldn't be taken as absolute gospel, since it relies on self-reporting of voting behavior. Something called "social desirability bias" (also known as the "halo effect") kicks in, where people want to report having done something that's considered the right thing to do ... even if it's something they haven't done.
That may explain why the Census reported the overall number of voters increased from 131.1 million in 2008 to 132.9 million in 2012, despite the fact that actual official election results showed a decline from 132.7 million votes in 2008 to 130.7 million in 2012. Still, the Census's figures rely on a sample of hundreds of thousands, making them vastly superior to 2008 exit polls, and presenting a really comprehensive look at the changing electorate.