Much of this blog is spent arguing — persuasively I hope — why the polling data and get out the vote activities favor Mitt Romney this election cycle. But if President Obama wins re-election where could all of this analysis have erred?
Possibly the final remaining question that will determine the election outcome is whether Obama campaign manager David Axelrod is correct on the racial composition of the electorate being 72% White or whether he is fooling both himself and his acolytes in the media? President Obama regularly polls with national support among Whites as low as between 36 – 38%. If Axelrod is correct then Barack Obama has a good chance to eek out a close re-election. But if Axelrod is wrong on the electorate composition and Whites make up closer to 75% of voters then not only will Barack Obama lose this election, he could lose it badly with a final tally in the area of 338 to 200 electoral votes.
The entire Obama campaign is predicated on a voting public with a racial composition that in my opinion is highly unlikely to appear in 2012. The Obama campaign has revealed their assumption that White voters will only comprise 72% of the national voting public this year. State percentages will vary but those models are not revealed publicly. The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) is the final arbiter on racial make-up of an election. For months following an election, they pour through every precinct and get an accurate read on election statistics before releasing their results which unsurprisingly tend to differ from election night exit polls.
The racial breakdown in 2008 election according to the Census Bureau was White 76.3%, Black 12.1%, Hispanic 7.4%, Asian 2.5%, Other 1.7%.
The CNN exit polls which are still used regularly in news stories reported: White: 74%, Blacks: 13%, Hispanics 9%, Asians 2%, Other 3%.
When you look at the differences, Whites are underrepresented by 2.3%, Blacks overrepresented by 0.9% and Hispanics over-represented by 1.6%. In the last election Whites voted Republican (55 – 43) while both Blacks (95 to 4) and Hispanics (67 to 31) voted Democrat. When national polls reflect the CNN racial make-up they are over-sampling Democrat groups and under-sampling Republican groups.
As outlined previously, 1.7 million White voters (who voted in 2004) did not vote in 2008. This means from a racial composition stand-point the 2008 demographic breakdown is over-generous to the non-White groups and somewhat of an anomaly due to the missing White demographic who voted in 2004 but sat out last time. This is not an argument against the decreasing percentage of White voters in election, because the overall increase in the non-White voting population is very real. The problem with Team Obama’s assumptions, however, is they decrease the White vote -4.3pp to 72% this election cycle when there is no evidence to support such a steep decline.
Before 2008, the average decrease in the White percent of the popular vote was -1.4 percentage points (pp) since 1988. This was not solely because of decreased interest from White voters in Presidential elections but due to the increasing number of non-Whites both in the population and participating in Presidential elections. The rate of change from election to election was a decrease of -0.4pp in the White composition of the voting public and most of that coming between 1992 and 1996 in another election when white Republicans were less than enthusiastic with their nominee. Something dramatic, however, happened in 2008. The number of whites as a percentage of the voting population dropped -2.9pp to 76.3% from 79.2% (Pew Research, April 30, 2009).
The doubling of the average decrease in White participation was a combination of 2 competing factors: first, non-Whites were excited over the prospects of the first viable non-White Presidential candidate and White voters of the opposition party were unenthusiastic over their candidate and did not participate in the election. Without the combination of these factors the White vote percentage of the electorate would still have declined but the decline would not doubled. Compared to the recent rate of change of -0.4pp, the change in the decrease of White composition from 2004 to 2008 was -1.4pp, 3.5x greater than the modern trend.
The folly of the Obama campaign’s election assumptions is the 2008 perfect storm that doubled the election-over-election decrease in White participation at a pace 3.5x as great as the norm will repeat itself with another -1.4pp rate of change resulting in a -4.3pp decline to 72%.
This type of assumption is the same as a football team that has a record first quarter outscoring their opponent 35-0 and then game-plans they will repeat that every quarter scoring 140 points. That is clearly not going to happen.
In the 2012 election neither of the two major factors from 2008 that conspired to dramatically decrease White participation are evident. Every survey consistently reveals meaningful decreases in enthusiasm among non-White voters while White voters appear substantially more enthusiastic than 2008. To take a record turnout model from 2008 and extrapolate it to the next election and expect a repeat record decrease from the unusually low 2008 turnout is folly bordering on delusional.
Regarding the macro-trend in the US of an increase in the non-White composition of the population, the return of an enthusiastic white voter coupled with the decreased non-White enthusiasm should strongly mitigate the macro-demographic trend of very real increases in non-White voters overall.
But David Axelrod’s entire campaign is predicated on the above assumptions that expect a “White flight” that exists in no poll nationally or in any state. At a state level, it is due to differences of opinion like the above that both campaigns are reportedly seeing dramatically different electorates in Ohio with each campaign completely confident they will win the state. One of them is very wrong.
National polls often use 74% as the representative White vote in this election, but from a historic stand-point 75% is the more reasonable level which would be a -1.3% decline from 2008. With polls today consistently showing Obama’s support between 36-38% with this segment of the electorate comprising 75% of voters, it is easy to see how a tight race can turn into a blowout rather quickly. As for David Axelrod’s turnout model, he is talking his book when every ounce of data says he is blowing smoke. If Axelrod is right on the racial make-up of the electorate, President Obama probably wins re-election in a close race. But there is little evidence that the 76.3% of White voters in 2008 when combined with a probable return of the missing 1.7 million whites will make up only 72% of the electorate Team Obama needs to avoid a sizable Romney win on November 6.