By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst
This third update in our turnout series takes a closer look at the turnout rates by race and ethnicity of the voters. The data matter a great deal in American elections because there are significant differences in turnout rates by race and ethnicity. The country has become increasingly diverse over the last two decades, meaning that the electorate has become less dominated by white voters, and the rise of hispanic voters has the biggest impact.
Historically, white voters have turned out at higher rates than black or hispanic voters. This changed dramatically for the 2008 and 2012 elections, in which the already increasing turnout rate among black voters surged ahead of white voters to nearly 70% thanks to the candidacy of Barack Obama. Hispanic voters have turned out at comparatively low levels, never exceeding 50%.
According to the Roper Center’s information on group voting, white voters have tended to favor Republican candidates over Democratic candidates, while black voters have overwhelmingly favored Democratic candidates over Republican candidates since the civil rights era. Hispanic voters also favor Democrats consistently, but by less overwhelming margins. In 2012, Mitt Romney won white voters with 59% to 39%, but could not overcome losing black voters by 93% to 6% and hispanic voters 71% to 27%.
This year, the differences in voting patterns are at least as clear. In a recent poll by George Washington University, Trump led with white voters 48% to Clinton’s 38%, while losing among black voters 4% to 87%, and hispanic voters 26% to 59%. Overall, Cinton led by 47% to 39% in this poll, an 8 point lead, and in the sample the shape of the electorate along ethnic and racial lines was similar to the 2012 election.
To give herself more of an advantage, the Clinton campaign has launched the largest ever hispanic turnout and voter registration effort in battleground states with a significant hispanic population like Florida and Arizona. For this effort, Clinton’s campaign is relying largely on Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric as a motivating factor, the hope being to drive up hispanic turnout as a response to Trump’s candidacy.
As a share of the electorate, hispanic voters have the greatest potential for growth, because historically they have been the least likely to vote. At just 43% turnout in 2012 there is significant room upwards. Hispanic voters have also increased as a percentage of the total population in the United States, moving from relative irrelevance, to potentially more than 10% of the overall vote in 2016.
Trump, on the other hand, is hoping he can mobilize white voters who are comparatively unreliable, especially white men who do not have a college degree. To counter this in the short term, the Clinton team has worked to frame Trump as unacceptable as a President, in the hope that many white voters will simply stay home instead. So while there could be a populist surge, the effect will likely be isolated, and somewhat dampened by potentially lower turn out with more educated white voters.
In the long term, the demographic trends are clear. Non-white voters already represent more than 25% of the electorate in presidential election years, a number that could be as high as 30% this year, depending on whether the turn out rate among black voters stays stable, while hispanic voters increase.
This trend will continue, and future Republican candidates will find themselves unable to win national elections unless they can do better with black and hispanic voters. The party is aware of this problem, openly discussing it in their now famous 2012 “autopsy” report. But instead, the party has doubled down on trying to turn out and win bigger shares of white voters in the short term, in favor of positioning themselves for the long-term.