America’s last four elections have had deep repercussions. In 2006 Democrats gained control of Congress. In 2008 they gained even larger majorities in Congress and the White House. In 2010, the GOP won back the House and narrowed the Democrats majority in the Senate. Last year, Democrats held the White House and enlarged their majority in the Senate. What explains this large partisan voting shifts? Part of it is the political environment of the time but the far larger part is the electorate, especially the ideological and racial composition of the electorate.
In 2008, Barack Obama and Democrats benefited from a less white and younger electorate. In 2010 the GOP benefited from a more white and conservative electorate. In 2012, as in 2008, Democrats turned out their base in large numbers and reaped the results. Since the 2012 election there have been a number of observations about the election, most on how the GOP needs to embrace diversity to win future elections. Obviously for the GOP any vote they get from any voter is a good thing. But to embrace diversity the GOP has been split on the debate over immigration reform. On one side are establishment and Senate Republicans who passed a comprehensive immigration bill in June. On the other side are House Republicans who do not necessarily believe abandoning their law and order stance is the way to go.
A number of analysts have weighed in on the debate. Those in the mold of Karl Rove urge the GOP to try to embrace a new and different coalition of voters. Others, more non-partisan such as Sean Trende and Harry Enten of the Guardian have not said this is the wrong way to go. But they rightly point out that the GOP coalition of mostly older and white voters can still hand the party electoral victories. Yes, even in Presidential elections!
The detractors of this theory have valid arguments. They cite the fact that Mitt Romney won 59% of the white vote and still could not win the election. They also cite the fact that the white portion of the electorate dropped to 72% and less than 70% in key swing states such as Florida and Virginia. But while all these points may be valid they also ignore a simple fact about elections. Turnout, turnout, turnout. In 2012, Sean Trende points out how minority turnout increased from 2008 levels while white turnout dropped. This in an election where several million fewer people cast ballots then in 2008. Thus, Romney’s 59% win among white voters was limited by the fact their share of the vote was smaller than ever before.
The 2012 election also was seen differently by the average vote and GOP analysts. While the economy was not featuring a steady recovery it was far better than 2009. Thus whereas Republicans thought the economy was terrible the rest of the electorate thought it was good enough to reelect the President. Yet, even in a political environment where the economy was slowly recovering the President could do no better than 39% among these voters.
The idea the GOP can with a mostly white coalition has been discounted, or at least believed so, by the theories above. Karl Rove said at one time it would be hard for the GOP to consistently win the white vote by 25%. But electoral rules have always been made to be broken. People said JFK could not be elected as a Roman Catholic. People doubted a Californian Governor could rise to the top of the GOP. Moreover, the GOP arguably won white voters by 25 points in 2010. Some could argue this is when the political environment was toxic to Democrats. True. But if the GOP can win white voters by 20% in a slightly favorable year to Democrats that margin likely only goes up in years where the Democratic brand is hurting.
Also consider that why many Millennial groups are trending Democratic currently, Millennial white voters are consistently voting Republican. In 2008, 18-29 year old whites went for Obama 54%-44%. In 2010 they went for Republican candidates by 10%. In 2012 they went for Romney by 7 points and for Congressional Republicans by a similar margin. So the idea the GOP cannot win the newest crop of white voters is not true and it likely ensures the GOP continues to win big with white voters.
So now we come upon 2014. The economy really has not gone south. Consumer and economic confidence is up since 2012 even though fewer individuals in polls say they think the economy is recovering. The political environment remains largely neutral, even with the President suffering several scandals and his agenda being derailed.
Yet Obama’s poll numbers are less than stellar. More so, his numbers with white voters are staggeringly bad. Depending on the daily Gallup spread his approval with white voters is about 35%-35% approval. Pew has it slightly lower. This is a drop-off from the 37%-38% approval Obama enjoyed with white voters before the 2012 election. Most interestingly, this drop-off has not occurred because of college educated whites or minorities. It is because whites without a college degree have abandoned the President by over 10%. College educated whites and minorities have only dropped 1%-2% in approval since the election. To prove this point Gallup pools its data and finds white support dropping dramatically while minority turnout has dropped 3%-4%.
Looking forward to 2016 this analysis might be out of date by that time. The coalitions the parties court could largely depend on their nominees. For example, a Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden will court different voters same as a Rand Paul or Chris Christie would attract or repel different voters. Furthermore, minority turnout could drop with Obama out of office and white voters might return to the electoral process if the GOP finds a charismatic, populist nominee.
Overall, the President’s approval among registered voters hovers around 44%-45%. This at a time in the President’s term when Bush’s was still hovering near 50%. The President’s numbers give credence to the belief the GOP has a very good shot of winning the White House in 2016 with non-college educated whites returning to the electoral process and pulling the lever for the GOP and a slight uptick among minority and college educated white votes. In politics, nothing is set in stone.