Trende: "The Case of the Missing White Voters, Revisited"
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At Real Clear Politics, Sean Trende returns to the subject of the lousy white turnout in the 2012 election using the recent Census Bureau results from its post-election survey of who voted. His analysis is much like mine in, although he attempts to correct for "over-response bias" of people who lied that they voted when they didn't. (My hunch would be that blacks are most likely to boast they voted when they didn't actually get around to it, but nobody seems to have any way to prove any theories like this, so I just use the Census Bureau's unadjusted shares of the total vote as the most respectable numbers.)

"The Case of the Missing White Voters, Revisited" 

As I noted earlier, if you correct the CPS data to account for over-response bias, it shows there were likely 5 million fewer whites in 2012 than in 2008. When you account for expected growth, we’d find 6.5 million fewer whites than a population projection would anticipate.

This is the real ballgame regarding demographic change in 2012. If these white voters had decided to vote, the racial breakdown of the electorate would have been 73.6 percent white, 12.5 percent black, 9.5 percent Hispanic and 2.4 percent Asian — almost identical to the 2008 numbers.

2. These voters were largely downscale, Northern, rural whites. In other words, H. Ross Perot voters.

Those totals are a bit more precise and certain (and lower) than my estimates from November of last year. With more complete data, we can now get a better handle regarding just who these missing white voters were.


For those with long memories, this stands out as the heart of the “Perot coalition.” That coalition was strongest with secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism. They were largely concentrated in the North and Mountain West: Perot’s worst 10 national showings occurred in Southern and border states. His best showings? Maine, Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Minnesota. 

We can flesh this out a bit more by running a regression analysis, which enables us to isolate the effects of particular variables while holding other variables constant. We’ll use county-level data ...

In his regression analysis, he's looking at total change in turnout (all ethnicities) by county from 2008 to 2012. I would prefer instead to use total change in turnout from 2004 (the recent peak of white people's participation) to 2012.

For those who didn’t click over to the chart, we’re pretty confident that the voters were more likely to stay home if they resided in states that were hit by Hurricane Sandy, that were targeted by a campaign in 2008, that had higher foreign-born populations, and that had more Hispanic residents. The latter result probably suggests a drop-off in rural Hispanic voters, who are overrepresented in an analysis such as this one. 

Texas has 254 counties, with an average population of about 100,000, each of which weigh in this analysis, while Los Angeles County, for instance, has about 10,000,000 million people.

We’re also pretty confident that the voters were more likely to turn out if they resided in counties with higher median household incomes, high population growth, a competitive Senate race in 2012, or that were a target state in 2012. 

Counties with higher populations of Mormons, African-Americans, and older voters also had higher turnout, all other things being equal. None of this is all that surprising. 

Perhaps most intriguingly, even after all of these controls are in place, the county’s vote for Ross Perot in 1992 comes back statistically significant, and suggests that a higher vote for Perot in a county did, in fact, correlate with a drop-off in voter turnout in 2012. 

What does that tell us about these voters? As I noted, they tended to be downscale, blue-collar whites. They weren’t evangelicals; Ross Perot was pro-choice, in favor of gay rights, and in favor of some gun control. You probably didn’t know that, though, and neither did most voters, because that’s not what his campaign was about. 

His campaign was focused on his fiercely populist stance on economics. He was a deficit hawk, favoring tax hikes on the rich to help balance the budget. He was staunchly opposed to illegal immigration as well as to free trade (and especially the North American Free Trade Agreement). He advocated more spending on education, and even Medicare-for-all. Given the overall demographic and political orientation of these voters, one can see why they would stay home rather than vote for an urban liberal like President Obama or a severely pro-business venture capitalist like Mitt Romney.

I wasn't that impressed by the notion of Ross Perot as President (only Saturday Night Live pointed out that he was clearly going through a major manic depressive cycle in 1992, when he disappeared for the summer muttering about the CIA trying to ruin his daughter's wedding by claiming she was a lesbian). But I am impressed by Perot voters, whose reasonably coherent and patriotic economics scared the Establishment into making some decisions that contributed to the rising wage prosperity of the later 1990s.

3. These [missing white] voters were not enough to cost Romney the election, standing alone. 

But while this was the most salient demographic change, it was probably not, standing alone, enough to swing the election to Obama. After all, he won the election by almost exactly 5 million votes. If we assume there were 6.5 million “missing” white voters, than means that Romney would have had to win almost 90 percent of their votes to win the election. 

Give that whites overall broke roughly 60-40 for Romney [the Reuters poll showed 57.1 to 41.1 for Romney], this seems unlikely. In fact, if these voters had shown up and voted like whites overall voted, the president’s margin would have shrunk, but he still would have won by a healthy 2.7 percent margin. 

At the same time, if you buy the analysis above, it’s likely that these voters weren’t a representative subsample of white voters. There were probably very few outright liberal voters (though there were certainly some), and they were probably less favorably disposed toward Obama than whites as a whole. Given that people who disapprove of the president rarely vote for him (Obama’s vote share exceeded his favorable ratings in only four states in 2012), my sense is that, if these voters were somehow forced to show up and vote, they’d have broken more along the lines of 70-30 for Romney.

Okay, but in addition, in an election where white people who were apathetic in 2012 about Romney were fired up to vote, almost certainly the GOP would have won some marginal Obama voters.

This still only shrinks the president’s margin to 1.8 percent, but now we’re in the ballpark of being able to see a GOP path to victory (we’re also more in line with what the national polls were showing).

In this scenario, boosting the GOP share of the white vote from 58% to 60% percent, say, gives the GOP candidate the national popular vote victory. And there are obvious Electoral Vote opportunities where a lot of whites held their noses and voted for Obama in the north-central Slippery Six, each of which Romney lost narrowly because he didn't get a high enough share of the white vote: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. These states are not likely to be flooded with newly voting Hispanics by 2016, either.

In fact, if the African-American share of the electorate drops back to its recent average of 11 percent of the electorate and the GOP wins 10 percent of the black vote rather than 6 percent (there are good arguments both for and against this occurring; I am agnostic on the question), the next Republican would win narrowly if he or she can motivate these “missing whites,” even without moving the Hispanic (or Asian) vote. 

4. The GOP faces a tough choice. 

Of course, it isn’t that easy. Obama won’t be on the ticket in 2016, and the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, could have a greater appeal to these voters (current polling suggests that she does). But there are always tradeoffs, and Clinton’s greater appeal to blue-collar whites, to the extent it holds through 2016, could be offset by a less visceral attachment with young voters, college-educated whites and to nonwhites than the president enjoys. 

But the GOP still has something of a choice to make. One option is to go after these downscale whites. As I’ll show in Part 2 [not yet published], it can probably build a fairly strong coalition this way. Doing so would likely mean nominating a candidate who is more Bush-like in personality, and to some degree on policy. This doesn’t mean embracing “big government” economics or redistribution full bore; suspicion of government is a strain in American populism dating back at least to Andrew Jackson. It means abandoning some of its more pro-corporate stances. This GOP would have to be more "America first" on trade, immigration and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics. 

For now, the GOP seems to be taking a different route, trying to appeal to Hispanics through immigration reform and to upscale whites by relaxing its stance on some social issues.

By the way, economic populism isn't a bad way to not turn off Hispanic voters. In contrast, the conventional wisdom among the Republican Brain Trust that Romneyism plus amnesty equals success with Hispanics is the kind of thing that makes sense only if your main Hispanic friend is former Commerce Secretary-turned-amnesty-advocate Carlos "Hidalgo-American" Gutierrez.

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