Electoral demographics could determine 2012

It is no secret that in 2008 the electorate favored Barack Obama.  Young voters came out in massive numbers, African-Americans and Asian-Americans voted at historically high levels. Hispanics represented their largest share of the electorate in history.  Considering the president’s standing with white voters repeating this kind of demographic turnout could be crucial.

The latest Gallup survey illustrates the president’s struggle.  In the latest round of three-day averages the president is at 45% approval and 48% disapproval. It is noticeable to find where the president’s strongest pockets of support are.  Among African-Americans the president has a 90% approval rating, among Hispanics and the young it hangs at slightly above 50%.  In partisan support the president is over 80% approval among Democrats, below 20% with Republicans and most noticeably under 40% (once again) with independents.  Among white voters the president is barely at 40% (largely held up by high approval among single white women).

These numbers are important to keep in mind because whites made up 74% of the electorate in 2008 and Obama won 43% of them.  Similarly, independents made up 29% of the electorate in 2008 and Obama won 53% of them.  Needless to say his numbers among whites, especially white independents, have eroded. But Obama’s drop in approval among other key constituencies of his 2008 coalition is just as worrisome.  In 2008 the youth vote, 18-29 years old, turned out in massive numbers.  They made up a record 18% of the electorate and gave the president 66% of their vote.  Hispanics made up 8% of the electorate and Obama won 68% of their votes.

The erosion in the president’s numbers point to some irrefutable facts for the Obama campaign to confront. First, it is all but guaranteed the president will lose independents.  You don’t maintain a 40% approval rating among any group and expect to win a majority of their votes on election day.  Second, considering the loss of independent voters it is even more important the president turn out the most solid parts of his base.  Considering 2008 results and current Gallup tracking data this would be Democrats, single women, African-Americans, Hispanics and the youth vote.

But so far the only groups that seems to be showing significant motivation to go out and vote on election day are Republicans, whites and conservatives.  According to the latest Pew survey the GOP holds a 7 point edge in this regard. In 2008 conservatives made up only 34% of the electorate and Obama won 20% of their votes.  Liberals and moderates made up the rest of the electorate and went overwhelmingly for Obama.  However in 2010 conservatives made up over 42% of the electorate and they overwhelmingly backed GOP candidates, 83%-14%.  Likewise, in 208 Republicans were only 32% of the electorate compared to 39% of Democrats.  In 2010 Republicans and Democrats were both 35% of the electorate.  Considering in recent years both the left and right have shed partisan members we could see more than 30% of independents cast ballots in 2012 (though not many will really behave like true independents).

The economic downturn has hit both Republican and Democratic constituencies.  African-Americans and Hispanics continue to have a higher unemployment rate than the national average.  White working class voters without college degrees also have a higher unemployment than the national average.  Yet in 2010 all three groups stuck with their partisan inclinations.  The difference was turnout.  In 2010 only 22% of the electorate was made up of minorities as opposed to 78% white.  The GOP’s winning margins among whites with college degrees (43%) and whites without college degrees (35%) even more favored GOP candidates then they did in 2008.  According to Gallup’s latest numbers these trends have not gotten better for Democrats and the president.  They have gotten worse.

Thus demographic turnout may be the only thing that saves the president in November.  Considering the president is unlikely to match his 2008 performance of 43% support among whites in 2012 he must see increased turnout among Hispanics, blacks and Asian-Americans.  This would as a result shrink the white share of the electorate in 2012.  He also must maintain his 2008 margins among these groups, especially if the president wins only 45% or so of independent support.  Seeing this turnout however will not be a sure thing.

The nation’s demographics are changing but that does not mean subsequent elections will match the changing demographics of the country.  Hispanic representation in the electorate has held steady since 2000 even as they have grown in population.  African-Americans did not grow as a percentage of the populace between 2000 and 2010.  Yet their share of the electorate has been increasing since 2000.  Yet in 2008 they all but maximized their vote share.  It is hard to see African-Americans making up more than 12% of the electorate this November.  And that was when the economy had yet to directly affect them and they had an outgoing GOP administration to blame.  The youth vote was huge in 2008 but just as among African-Americans it seemed to max out in 2008.  In 2010 the youth vote only made up 12% of the electorate and was more friendly to the GOP.

Even turnout will not guarantee a Democratic victory.  Many of the nation’s minorities are located in states that are already decided.  Many African-Americans are located in strongly GOP Southern states or Northeastern Democratic states.  Asian-Americans are to spread out to determine a state unless the election is extremely close (perhaps Virginia).  Hispanics make up only a double-digit percentage of the populace in seven states.  Of these only Pennsylvania, Nevada, Florida and Colorado can really be called swing states.  Texas is solidly Republican, California solidly Democratic and New Mexico leans left.  But even then Florida’s Hispanic populace is Cuban-American and thus more conservative than other Hispanics.  So in truth only three swing states have a substantial number of Democratic leaning Hispanics.

Winning these states could surely help the president get to 270 electoral votes.  But electoral politics is usually a zero-sum game.  To court a certain group of voters you must alienate another group.  Obama’s recent decision to end deportations for 16-30 year old Hispanics who qualify is meant to short up his left flank.  While it may work to win Mexican-Hispanics it likely comes at the expense of Cuban-American Hispanics and white, blue-collar workers who until recently were a key part of the Democratic coalition.

President Obama may be holding leads in most national surveys today but those surveys largely reflect expectations of a bigger minority electorate in 2012 than we saw in 2008.  Interestingly liberals seem to not like when pollsters do not reflect this certain bias (or assumption).  If this increased minority turnout does not materialize on election day (along with young voters) and whites and independents vote more Republican than 2008  or even stay at their 2010 levels the president could be a lame duck far sooner than he anticipated.

Caveat: It is extremely unlikely 56% of independents vote for Mitt Romney in 2012.  In 2010 56% of independents backed the Republican candidate for Congress.  Likewise it is unlikely 20% of conservatives vote to reelect President Obama in 2012.

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