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The Next America - Demographics 2012 / Demographics

Opinion: Demographic Fundamentals Remain Critical to 2012 Presidential Outcome

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney points to President Obama during the first presidential debate held at the University of Denver last Wednesday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

October 9, 2012

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Summary: The Center for American Progress published “The Path to 270” in November 2011 outlining the demographic and economic factors in play for the upcoming 2012 presidential election. The coauthors, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, discussed the growing minority vote and examined whether the various demographic groups key in President Obama’s 2008 victory would once again rise to the occasion.

Last month, CAP released an updated report, “The Path to 270 Revisited,” that used updated polling and demographic data to answer questions integral to next month’s presidential election. Will Obama receive the same minority turnout that brought his victory four years prior? How has his support fared among white, college-educated voters? And what advantages can Romney capture to win?

Teixeira and Halpin address these issues, and more, in the essay below.


--The Next America Staff

Much has been written about the perceived strong performance of Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate—and conversely, the seemingly lackluster performance of President Obama. Although important to larger questions about the two campaign’s strategies in the final weeks, there is scant historical evidence that the debate will have much of an impact on the eventual outcome of the presidential election.  

What will matter most are the two fundamentals we outlined in our November 2011 paper, “The Path to 270.” In that report, we argued that the election will boil down to two primary questions. Will the rising electorate of communities of color, the millennial generation, professionals, single women, and seculars that pushed Obama to victory in 2008 be sufficient and mobilized enough to ensure his reelection in 2012? Or will the Republican Party and its presidential nominee capitalize on a struggling economy and greater mobilization from a conservative base that holds the president in deep disdain?

These remain the central issues of the election.

Our national analysis broke down the electorate into three key groups—minorities, college-educated whites, and noncollege or working-class whites. Using these three groups, we discussed various scenarios that might result in an Obama or Romney victory. We found, in brief, that Obama should be significantly advantaged in 2012 by demographic change, especially a projected increase in minority voters and decrease in white working-class voters.

We further found that if the president’s minority support holds up in 2012, with the level of Hispanic support being the biggest question mark, he could absorb quite a lot of falloff in his support among white working-class voters and still win the election. The latter is especially the case if Obama’s support also holds up among white college-educated voters.

In our latest paper, “The Path to 270 Revisited,” we reexamine this assessment based on polling and demographic data that are now available to try to answer the following questions:

  • How much demographic change can we expect to see in the 2012 election?
  • Will Obama’s minority support be as high as it was in 2008?
  • Will Obama’s support among college-educated whites hold up in 2012?
  • Will Romney’s advantage among white working-class voters be large enough to win?

How much demographic change can we expect to see in the 2012 election?

Since our original report in 2011, better data on demographic changes nationally and in battleground states became available. Based on analysis of the most up-to-date information about eligible voters from the Current Population Survey, the overall minority composition of the electorate increased by 3 points since 2008, while the percentage of white working-class voters declined by an equal amount (see data below preceding map). White college graduates increased also, but only very slightly, about two-tenths of a percentage point.

This is fairly similar to our projection based on exit poll and 2000-10 census data. The differences are that our projection had minority voter share going up only 2 points and white college graduate voter share going up 1 point. But keep in mind that these new figures are based on changes in the composition of eligible voters, which may or may not be fully reflected in the composition of actual voters, depending on turnout patterns. Given that minorities’ turnout tends to be relatively low while white college graduates’ turnout is relatively high, the shifts we see in 2012 may still wind up close to our original projection.

Will Obama’s minority support be as high as it was in 2008?

The minority vote in the polls continues to look solid for Obama as we head toward November’s election, coming very close to the 80 percent support he received in 2008.

Part of this, of course, is due to overwhelming backing from black voters. But it was more or less expected that African-American voters would continue to support the first African-American president by very lopsided margins. It was less expected that Latinos would be as strong as they have been so far for Obama. Indeed, in 11 national polls of Hispanics conducted from December of last year through August 2012, Latino voters have favored Obama over Romney by an average of 43 percentage points, substantially higher than the margin of 36 points they gave the president in 2008.

It therefore seems that, barring a significant meltdown in his Hispanic support, Obama should, in fact, come close to his 2008 level of support in 2012.

Will Obama’s support among college-educated whites hold up in 2012?

Polling persistently shows Obama doing as well as or better than his performance in 2008 among white college graduates. In Pew polls, for example, this group is averaging around a 2-point deficit for Obama, compared with 4 points in 2008.

Will Romney’s advantage among white working-class voters be large enough to win?

The developments just summarized give Obama a considerable buffer against expected weakness among white noncollege voters. Indeed, if the minority and white college-educated vote hold up as well in November as they have in recent polling, Romney needs to generate a huge margin among white working-class voters to have a decent chance of winning—closer to the 30 points congressional Republicans won this group by in 2010 than the 18-point margin received by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008.

In fact, if Obama replicates his 2008 performance among minorities and white college graduates, then Romney would need to carry white working-class voters by double McCain’s margin (36 points) even if the minority vote does not grow at all. And if the minority vote does grow as expected, he would need north of a 40-point margin among the white working class to prevail. That’s how steep a climb Romney will face if Obama holds steady among minorities and white college grads.

But Romney has not been remotely close to that level of support among white working-class voters. He’s been averaging around the same margin McCain received in 2008 with occasional readings as high as 23 points. Even the latter margin is far off what he will need to win, given the size and leanings of the rest of the electorate. Thus, Romney, to be successful in November’s election, needs to greatly exceed his currently observed upper bound of support among white working class voters.

What will happen in November?

Demographics are important but not determinative of election outcomes. Politics and campaigns matter in putting together viable electoral majorities. A few weeks out, it is certainly possible to see Romney building on his debate performance to turn a surge of conservative activism and white working-class skepticism into a narrow victory should the president’s supporters end up being as apathetic as they were in 2010 and if late-deciding voters break heavily against him. But it is also possible to envision many voters, including some segments of the white working class, turning away from the perceived radicalism of the Republican ticket and agenda and returning the president to office by a few percentage points.

Many difficult challenges lie ahead for both candidates and campaigns to consider. The complex mix of demographics, economics, and ideology makes this already close race even more vigorously contested.

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at both The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. He is also a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, where he has directed projects on political demography and geography and coauthored a series of papers with William Frey on the shifting demographics of battleground states.

John Halpin is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on political theory, communications, and public-opinion analysis. He is the codirector and creator of the Progressive Studies Program at CAP, an interdisciplinary project researching the intellectual history, foundational principles, and public understanding of progressivism.

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