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The Case of the Missing White Voters

The Case of the Missing White Voters

By Sean Trende - November 8, 2012

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.

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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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