The disappearing white vote (and 3 other observations from the 2012 election Census report)

May 10, 2013

The U.S. Census Bureau released a treasure trove of information about the size, shape and look of the 2012 presidential election on Wednesday, a veritable embarrassment of riches for political nerds, er, junkies.


Lots and lots of people watch President Obama being sworn in.

We've spent the better part of the last day leafing through the report and the data that backs it up. (You can do it yourself -- and should -- here.)  But, for those of you who don't have the luxury of spending a day (or even an hour) with this stuff, we've culled out some of the most interesting nuggets below. We'd love to hear from you about what struck you in the data.

1.  The white vote's dominance is fading fast.
For the first time since the Census starting collecting this data in 1996, white voters voted at a lower rate (64.1 percent of eligible voters) than black voters (66.2 percent). That's only part of the story, however. The total number of white voters decreased by roughly 2 million in 2012 as compared to 2008, the first time since 1996 that a "race group" (as they describe it) has seen a diminution in net votes cast. And, in the last five presidential elections, the white share of the electorate has dipped by nine points; the Hispanic share has risen four points in that time while African Americans' votes have increased by three percentage points.

2. Hispanics are still a sleeping electoral giant. But will they ever wake up?
Everyone knows by now that the Hispanic community in the United States is growing rapidly and, as such, is a critical piece of both parties' electoral calculus in future elections. (At the moment, Hispanics are an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency.)

But, there remains little evidence of the sort of Hispanic boom in terms of their influence in electoral politics that everyone has been waiting for. First, just 48 percent of eligible Hispanic voters actually voted -- well below the number of whites and blacks who did the same. Second, that 48 percent number is not drastically different from the 45 percent of eligible Hispanics who voted in the 1996 election and is a dip from the 49.9 percent of eligible Hispanics who voted in 2008. (By way of comparison, 53 percent of eligible African Americans voted in 1996 as compared to 66.2 percent in 2012.)

"Despite having an increased share of the voting population in every presidential election since 1996, Hispanics have still accounted for a smaller percentage of actual votes cast than their share of the eligible electorate would indicate," according to the Census report.

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 2.14.18 PM
Image courtesy of Pew

3. The 2012 electorate didn't get much bigger.
In every election since 1996, the number of eligible voters and the number of actual votes cast has risen as compared to the previous election.  That remained the case in 2012 -- but just barely.  Overall nearly 133 million votes were cast, an increase of roughly 1.8 million votes from 2008.  That's the smallest growth in raw vote in the last four presidential elections and comes nowhere close to 2004 when almost 15 million more people voted than had in 2000. What's fascinating is that the gains among blacks (1.7 million more votes cast than 2008) and Hispanics (1.4 million more) were largely offset by the decline in the number of white voters (2 million fewer).

One other interesting sidebar: The actual vote count was roughly four million votes smaller than the Census calculation of the number of votes cast.

Image courtesy of Pew
Image courtesy of Pew

4. Young voters are still the least likely to vote.
There's little question that President Obama demonstrated a heretofore unseen connection with young people in 2008 and 2012. But, as we wrote during the 2012 election, the key to Obama's strength among young (age 18-29 voters) was not his ability to bring them out to vote in droves but rather his ability to consolidate the votes of those who did turnout for him.

Exit polling showed voters aged 18-29 made up 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 after comprising 18 percent of it in 2008. That's still well below where the youth vote stood in the 1980s when it made up 20 percent or more of the overall electorate. (Surprisingly, the Census Bureau survey found voters aged 18-29 making up just 15 percent of the 2012 electorate.)

Obama's ability then was to consolidate the youth vote. He won 60 percent of those voters in 2012 after taking a whopping 66 percent in 2008. That sort of dominance is historically anomalous when compared to other Democratic presidential nominees.

The Census study makes clear that youth voters -- in this case those aged 18-24 -- were the least likely (41.2 percent of eligibles) to vote while those 65 and older were most likely to vote (71.9 percent of eligibles).  Turnout among young white voters dropped the most between 2008 and 2012 (down 7.4 percentage points) while it dropped 6.7 percent among young black voters and 4.6 percent among young Hispanics.

Fixbits: 

The RNC cut a Benghazi ad that never ran during the 2012 campaign.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) will become the first major candidate for governor today.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would risk being "complicit" in a cover-up if he doesn't form a special panel to investigate the Benghazi attack.

A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll shows Chicago voters are split over the way Mayor Rahm Emanuel has handled crime.

Mitt Romney will sit down with Jay Leno next week.

Charlie Crist backs gay marriage.

Prince Harry was on Capitol Hill Thursday.

Must-reads:

"GOP senators’ assault shows tough path for immigration measure" -- David Nakamura and Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post

"Gabriel Gomez: GOP hope in Massachusetts" -- Jason Horowitz, Washington Post

"How We Register" -- Reid Wilson and Brian McGill, Hotline On Call

"Similar records, but L.A. mayoral candidates inhabit different worlds" -- Kate Linthicum and James Rainey, Los Angeles Times

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Aaron Blake · May 9, 2013