Wednesday, July 10, 2013

2012 Election: The White Vote

Journalism celebrates the "five Ws" but a secret of our profession is that many of us disdain the fifth W—"why"—as if accurate analysis is somehow woolly and inferior to accurate transcription of simple facts like "who," "what," "when" and "where."

 --Holman Jenkins, Wall Street Journal

Why? Why did Barack Obama win reelection in an economy with unemployment at the time stuck at 7.9%? Three days after the election, I offered the simple explanation--lousy candidate. Romney, the rich white guy, lacked the common touch (Jack Kemp’s "People don't care what you know until they know you care"), and was crippled because Romneycare left him unable to attack Obamacare. Much later, we realized that Romney couldn’t even capitalize on the 9.11 Benghazi debacle. His bungled hasty response both to what happened in Benghazi and a few hours earlier in Cairo left him incapable of going on the attack.

Ugh. Romney. But as election day faded, the size of Obama’s victory grew until it reached 5 million votes, a 3.9% margin. The election wasn’t even close. The president won decisively with unemployment still at 7.9%.

Why, indeed? Recently, we seized on Obama’s superior use of advanced technology, and that is part of the victory picture. Technology is an outgrowth of the tremendous advantage incumbent presidents enjoy over their opponents--they have years to build a massive reelection machine. But books are written about presidential election victories; winners usually offer more than one or two reasons.

Obama’s coalition linking youth, unmarried women, and minorities to a liberal, government-connected national elite totals a potential 60% of voters, as we have said for years. So faced with this massive coalition on the attack, why did Romney’s support among whites actually decline instead of generating an equal, opposite response?

Karl Rove writes that Census Bureau estimates show that 100,042,000 whites voted in 2008 but only 98,041,000 did in 2012. Meanwhile, the nonwhite vote as a share of total voters has increased in every presidential election since 1996 by 2% (much of it Hispanic) while the share of the white vote has dropped by 2% each election. Rove says Republicans must improve not only their performance among Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans, they must also turn out more white voters.

Sean Trende, in “RealClearPolitics,” has examined the white vote in greater detail. He says that from mid-2008 to mid-2012, the number of whites of voting age increased by 3 million. Assuming “new” voters would vote at a 55% rate, the number of white votes cast should have increased by 1.6 million between 2008 and 2012. But unlike Rove’s estimated 2 million drop in white voters, Trende believes there were 5 million fewer white votes in 2012 than in 2008. When you add in the expected growth in white potential voters, the actual difference between what was and what could have been comes out to a whopping 6.5 million.

Trende says these voters
were largely downscale, Northern, rural whites. In other words, H. Ross Perot voters. . . 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] was . . . fiercely populist . . . 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. 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.
Trende believes that had these whites been forced to vote, they’d have broken 70-30 for Romney. That alone would have shrunk Obama’s margin to 1.8%, in sight of a GOP path to victory, and in line with national polls.

Trende has also focused on an important subset of the white vote--white youth. In 2012, young white voters trended more heavily Republican than any other racial group, and were responsible for most of Romney’s improvement with whites vis-à-vis McCain. In 2008 white youth were 28 points more Democratic than older voters. Today they are 12 points more Democratic--a dramatic 16 point drop.

Why? For one group perhaps, a sick economy was 2012’s major issue.

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