Is The Missing White Voters Thesis Wrong?

by Nate Cohn | July 18, 2013

The "missing white voters" are coming under scrutiny. Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz question whether white voters are really trending toward Republicans, and they say that 2012 was really just a low turnout election. Sean Trende has offered two rebuttals in his defense, but I have a few thoughts on the arguments raised by Teixeira and Abramowitz. My take? The anti-Democratic trend among white voters is real, but exaggerated by PVI. And the missing white voters exist, even if they might not help Republicans. It doesn't add-up to an easy path for Republican presidential candidates.

Abramowitz and Teixeria dispute the anti-Democratic trend among white voters, arguing that Trende’s reliance on PVI is misleading, since it compares the white vote to a diversifying electorate. As a result, PVI would show white voters drifting to the right, even without any shifts at all. Abramowitz and Teixeira are definitely right on this point: About half of the decline in Democratic PVI among white voters over the last decade is due to demographic change.

But it’s tough to argue that there is no anti-Democratic trend among white voters. Abramowitz and Teixeria try to argue as much by showing changes in the white vote since 1952, a very Republican-friendly election sixty years ago. I can’t think of any reason why shifts in the white vote between, say, 1952 and 1988 should inform what we expect after 2012. So I prefer to look at the more recent past, and it’s clear that the GOP has steadily racked up larger margins with white voters over the last two decades.

Even so, these trends among white voters aren’t very helpful to Republicans, at least in presidential elections. Republican gains have almost exclusively occurred in red states, and particularly the South and Appalachia. It’s also unclear whether the trend will continue, since the GOP might be reaching the point of diminishing returns among white conservatives, while generational change might swamp additional losses. But although the anti-Democratic trend among white voters may be regional and exaggerated by PVI, it seems difficult to argue that the GOP hasn’t been making gains among white voters for a couple decades.

Abramowitz and Teixeira also question whether there are “missing white voters” at all. There’s a fight about whether Trende uses the right data, then there’s a question about whether 2012 was really just a low turnout election. As a result, Teixeira and Abramowitz think it’s unfair to imagine the GOP reclaiming missing white voters without also increasing non-white turnout to a similar extent. As they put it, “If you’re going to add one type of missing voter back in you should add them all back in; you can’t—or shouldn’t—assume a higher turnout election that would somehow only affect whites.”

This argument is a little strange. White turnout could easily increase without commensurate increases in non-white turnout. In fact, it’s happened quite recently. Consider 2004 and 2012: According to the Census, white turnout rates were 3 points higher in 2004 than 2012, while Asian/Hispanic/Other turnout was nearly 1 point lower in 2004 than 2012. That’s about 4.7 million missing white voters, and an additional .27 million Asian/Hispanic/Other voters. The point isn’t the specific numbers, just that we know Republicans can get higher white turnout than Romney received without higher non-white turnout than Obama. When you consider the candidates and the circumstances, that shouldn’t be surprising.

But like the pro-GOP trend among white voters, the “missing white voters” aren’t as significant as they might seem. The “missing white voters” are missing in the battleground states, where turnout generally held steady or increased. Obama’s strength in white, high turnout battlegrounds like Wisconsin or New Hampshire suggests that he probably didn’t fare too poorly among their missing counterparts elsewhere. Another reason why they’re not clearly Republican leaners: age. According to the Census, 40 percent of the missing white voters are between ages 18-24; if they’re even conservative, they may be more likely to support Ron Paul than Ross Perot.

So what’s the point? Yes, the GOP is making gains with whites and there are missing white voters. But no, the GOP can’t count on current trends or a pool of missing white voters to hand them the presidency. To win, they’ll need to boost turnout, make heretofore unrealized gains among whites in the non-Southern, “blue wall” battleground states, and, yes, they really could use some gains among Hispanics—especially in Florida. If the economic fundamentals are consistent with another competitive presidential election, Republicans might need to make some painful changes to broaden their appeal by so much.


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