By most accounts, Hillary Clinton’s path to victory relies on substantial turnout among black and Latino voters. And while early voting numbers so far appear to favor the Democrats, reports in recent days have suggested that although Latino participation may be up, African American turnout may be lower than in 2012. How concerned should the Clinton camp be?
On the one hand, maybe not so much. These stories have been based on simple comparisons of early vote totals from one year to the next, without accounting for rapidly changing demographics in states such as Florida, Arizona and Texas. They have also not tended to take into account the turnout of white voters as a point of comparison. As a result, it is difficult to say what the early vote numbers mean for the composition of the electorate this year.
On the other hand, our own analysis suggests that in several key states the minority share of the early vote this year is indeed smaller than in 2008 and 2012. Even as Latino early voting has increased, the growth among whites has been even larger.
We draw these conclusions from two sources of data. The first is a record of the racial composition of early vote returns from the voter file firm Catalist. As we described in a post earlier this week, Catalist tracks the demographic and political profile of people who have already cast their ballots in various states. Data from 2008 and 2012 provides a point of comparison for 2016.
The second is an estimate of the number of whites, blacks and Latinos in each state who are eligible to vote. We combined the Census Population Estimates with information from the American Communities Survey (ACS) to construct a projection of the citizen voting-age population (CVAP) by racial and ethnic group for November 2008, 2012 and 2016.
This allows us to calculate the percentage of each group’s CVAP that had voted one week before Tuesday’s election in six states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas. We can compare that to the same figures in 2008 and 2012.
The figure below confirms several patterns discussed in news reports this week. A substantial number of citizens have already voted in the 2016 election, and in most states, early voting has increased relative to 2008 and 2012.
Latino early voting (the blue line) in particular has increased substantially compared to 2008 or 2012 in Arizona, Florida and Texas. Compared to 2008 and 2012, Latino turnout is up in every state except Nevada.
Black early voting (the green line) lags behind the past two elections in North Carolina, a state that made major changes to early voting availability that were later reversed. Black turnout is up slightly in Arizona, Florida and Texas.
The narrow focus on minorities, however, misses a critical point: non-Hispanic white early voting (the red line) has increased substantially in 2016, often outpacing gains by Latinos and steady rates for African Americans.
In the figure below, we present each group’s share of the early vote compared to their size of the overall CVAP. This tells us whether a group is “overperforming” or “underperforming” in early voting relative to their presence in a state’s population. For instance, if Latinos make up 15 percent of eligible voters but only 10 percent of the early voting population, they are underperforming in the early vote by 5 points.
Using this perspective, there is only marginal evidence that the surge in Latino turnout in 2016 is resulting in an outsize Latino electorate. Florida is the only state where Latino early voting is outpacing both population growth and growth in the early vote for non-Latinos.
Even there, the growth in participation is relatively small, and Latinos still make up a smaller proportion of early voters than they do of the eligible electorate. So far in 2016, the Latino share of early vote in Florida is 5.1 percentage points lower than the Latino share of the eligible electorate.
In two other states with large Hispanic populations — Texas and Nevada — Latinos are underperforming relative to population growth and steady or increasing early voting by whites. Although many of these white voters may be Democrats, this suggests a more nuanced story about the likelihood that high Latino early voting alone will reshape the electoral landscape.
At the same time, early voting among African Americans is lagging behind their share of the eligible electorate, often in dramatic ways.
In 2012, African Americans overperformed in states such as North Carolina and Texas. But this year, black voting rates are trailing other groups relative to their size of the electorate, with some swings on the order of 5 to 10 percentage points.
Even in North Carolina, where the black share of the early vote is on par with their share of the eligible electorate (and similar to white voters), the pattern is a departure from 2012, when African Americans made up 5.8 points more of the early vote than their population share.
Meanwhile, white voters constitute a larger share of the early vote than in the past two election cycles. For example, in North Carolina and Florida, whites were underperforming in the early vote a week before the 2012 election. But they are now overperforming — and substantially so in Florida.
Of course, it is not entirely clear what this suggests for Tuesday’s outcome.
To be sure, the Clinton campaign would be happy if the early voting gains among Latinos and African Americans were outpacing those among whites. But Donald Trump’s support among white voters has been weaker than Mitt Romney’s, largely because of his struggles among the college educated. And we can’t say whether the growth in early voting among whites has come from people who are likely to support or oppose Trump.
At a minimum, however, the racial composition of the early vote may be enough to give Democrats pause and the Republicans hope.
Bernard L. Fraga is assistant professor of political science at Indiana University. Find him on Twitter @blfraga.
Brian Schaffner is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Find him on Twitter @b_schaffner.