2016 Voters, by the Numbers

A data-driven sneak peek at what the electorate is apt to look like next November.

Election day volunteer Vicki Groff places a sign to direct voters to a polling station at Kenilworth School February 28, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. 
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David Wasserman and Charlie Cook
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David Wasserman and Charlie Cook
July 10, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Part of what makes the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race so much fun is that two very as­tute ob­serv­ers look­ing at it through two dif­fer­ent lenses can come up with two totally dif­fer­ent pre­dic­tions about which party is likely to pre­vail.

Elec­tion day vo­lun­teer Vicki Groff places a sign to dir­ect voters to a polling sta­tion at Kenil­worth School Feb­ru­ary 28, 2012 in Phoenix, Ari­zona. (Jonath­an Gibby/Getty Im­ages)

Look­ing at the race through a his­tor­ic­al lens, the odds would seem stacked against Hil­lary Clin­ton (as­sum­ing that she is the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee). In the post-World War II era, only six times has one party held the pres­id­ency for two con­sec­ut­ive terms, and only once has that party kept the White House for a third—a pat­tern that re­flects what I call the “time for a change” voter dy­nam­ic. In fact, the last Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent dir­ectly elec­ted to suc­ceed an­oth­er was James Buchanan, in 1856; he fol­lowed Frank­lin Pierce.

But look­ing through a demo­graph­ic lens, the mod­ern GOP’s in­creas­ing re­li­ance on a shrink­ing pool of older, white, and work­ing-class voters—and its fail­ure to at­tract non­white voters—would seem to present an enorm­ous obstacle to the even­tu­al Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee. In 1980, when non­white voters were just 12 per­cent of the elect­or­ate, Ron­ald Re­agan won 56 per­cent of white voters and was elec­ted in a land­slide. But in 2012, when non­white voters ac­coun­ted for 28 per­cent of the elect­or­ate, Mitt Rom­ney took 59 per­cent of white voters—and lost the pres­id­en­tial race by 4 per­cent­age points. Without a total brand makeover, how can Re­pub­lic­ans ex­pect to pre­vail with an even more di­verse elect­or­ate in 2016?

(RE­LATED: The Gender Sub­plot)

Al­though we don’t yet know the iden­tity of the fu­ture GOP nom­in­ee, we can be­gin to sur­mise what the elect­or­ate will look like next Novem­ber. Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port House Ed­it­or Dav­id Wasser­man re­cently crunched census and exit-poll data to build a stat­ist­ic­al mod­el of the likely elect­or­ate in each state, break­ing down voters in­to five dis­tinct groups: 1) whites with col­lege de­grees, 2) whites without col­lege de­grees, 3) Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, 4) Lati­nos, and 5) Asi­ans/oth­ers.

First, the good news for Demo­crats: If the elect­or­ate evolves in sync with the Census Bur­eau’s es­tim­ates of the adult cit­izen pop­u­la­tion (ad­mit­tedly, a big if), the white share of the elect­or­ate would drop from 72 per­cent in 2012 to 70 per­cent in 2016; the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an share would re­main stable at 13 per­cent; the Latino por­tion would grow from 10 per­cent to 11 per­cent; and the Asi­an/oth­er seg­ment would in­crease from 5 per­cent to 6 per­cent. If the 2012 elec­tion had been held with that break­down (keep­ing all oth­er vari­ables stable), Pres­id­ent Obama would have won by 5.4 per­cent­age points rather than by his ac­tu­al 3.85-point mar­gin.

In ad­di­tion, the group with which the GOP does best—whites without col­lege de­grees—is the only one poised to shrink in 2016. Pres­id­ent Obama won just 36 per­cent of these voters in 2012, while 42 per­cent of white voters with col­lege de­grees pulled the lever for him. But if the elect­or­ate changes in line with census es­tim­ates, the slice of col­lege-edu­cated whites will grow by 1 point, to 37 per­cent of all voters, while the por­tion of whites without de­grees will shrink 3 points, to just 33 per­cent of the total. In oth­er words, the GOP doesn’t just have a grow­ing prob­lem with non­whites; it has a shrink­age prob­lem as well, as con­ser­vat­ive white seni­ors are sup­planted by col­lege-edu­cated mil­len­ni­als with dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al at­ti­tudes.

(RE­LATED: 2016 Elec­tion Will Not Be About the Can­did­ates)

All that said, none of these data points proves that Re­pub­lic­ans are doomed in 2016; in fact, the GOP has some reas­on for op­tim­ism. First, hard math makes talk of Demo­crats “ex­pand­ing the map” by cap­it­al­iz­ing on fa­vor­able demo­graph­ic trends in Ari­zona and Geor­gia sound pre­ma­ture at best. For ex­ample, Rom­ney beat Obama by 7.8 per­cent­age points in Geor­gia in 2012. Wasser­man es­tim­ates that the white share of the elect­or­ate there could de­cline from 64 per­cent to 62 per­cent—but that change by it­self wouldn’t erase even a third of Rom­ney’s mar­gin of vic­tory in the state.

Fur­ther­more, the shifts a Re­pub­lic­an would need to win the Elect­or­al Col­lege vote might be less dra­mat­ic than com­monly thought. If you’re search­ing for the “ma­gic num­ber” of Lati­nos that Re­pub­lic­ans would need to cap­ture the White House, you may not find one. Even if Rom­ney had done 10 points bet­ter with Lati­nos in every state in 2012—win­ning 37 per­cent in­stead of 27 per­cent na­tion­ally—he would have won only one ad­di­tion­al state: Flor­ida. That’s primar­ily be­cause Latino voters tend to be con­cen­trated in states such as Cali­for­nia, New York, and Texas, which aren’t Elect­or­al Col­lege battle­grounds. However, if the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee were to do just 3 points bet­ter across all five seg­ments of the elect­or­ate in 2016—a goal many GOP can­did­ates eas­ily sur­passed in 2014—he or she would win sev­en more states, and 305 elect­or­al votes.

That may be easi­er said than done. But the bot­tom line is that demo­graph­ic trends, while help­ful to Demo­crats, are no guar­an­tee that the party will hold the White House bey­ond 2017.

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