Tuesday, July 9, 2013

No, Republicans, ‘Missing’ White Voters Won’t Save You

As GOP House members continue their Kamikaze mission to scuttle the immigration reform bill, many political observers are wondering why. After all, isn’t it obvious that Republicans need more minority, particularly Hispanic support, and that therefore their self-interest should lead them to support a reasonable bill? Karl Rove thinks so.

But lots and lots of Republicans dissent from that analysis, preferring to put their faith in a group they’re much more comfortable with: white voters. The most influential empirical analysis supporting this view was recently published by Sean Trende in a four part series on RealClearPolitics. Trende’s analysis is built around the idea of “missing white voters.”

What he means by this is that, given the estimated number of white voters in 2008 (derived from exit polls) and the natural increase in white eligible voters between 2008 and 2012 there should have been far more white voters than there actually were (again, estimated from the exit polls). He labels the difference between his projected and actual numbers of white voters as “missing” white voters. He goes on to say that “[i]f 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.” Get it? The only real demographic change of importance between 2008 and 2012 was all those white voters who didn’t show up.

What’s wrong with this analysis? Plenty. Start with Trende’s projected natural increase in white voters—around 1.5 million voters, based on an assumed 55 percent turnout rate of additional white eligible voters. This implies that Trende was using an estimate of around 2.7 million additional eligible whites between 2008 and 2012. That’s wrong: Census data show an increase of only 1.5 million white eligibles. At Trende’s assumed 55 percent turnout rate, that translates into only 825,000 additional white voters from “natural increase.”

That’s one problem. But the most serious problem comes from how he handles his “missing” white voters relative to minority “missing” voters. That’s because, by the very same logic he uses to designate large numbers of white voters as missing, there are also large numbers of minority voters who are missing. This is both because minority voters experienced natural increase (much more so than whites actually) and because turnout was low in 2012 compared to 2008. This trend affected all voters, minorities as well as whites.

In 2012, turnout declined by 3.4 percentage points according to Michael McDonald’s US Elections Project. Plugging in his figures on votes cast and using Census data on eligible voters plus exit poll data on shares of votes by race, we calculate that turnout went down by about equal amounts among white and minority voters (3.4 and 3.2 percentage points, respectively).

Not surprisingly then, Trende’s own data show a substantial number of missing minority voters — 2.3 million compared to 6.1 million whites. There are more missing white voters despite the roughly equal declines in turnout simply because they are a larger group and more voters are knocked out of the voting pool for any given decline in turnout.

So what starts out looking like a mysterious epidemic of “missing” white voters becomes mostly a reflection of the simple fact that 2012 was a low turnout election. This unremarkable outcome is then hyped by Trende as the big demographic development of 2012 by doing something that is really quite misleading. He adds back in all the missing white voters to the 2012 electorate while leaving out all the missing minority voters. That is where he gets his claim that “[i]f 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.”

This really can’t be done. 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. And what happens if you play with the net up and add all the “missing” voters back in? You get 72.4 percent white, 12.8 percent black, 9.6 percent Hispanic, 2.4 percent Asian and 2.8 percent other race—in other words, 72 percent white and 28 percent minority, identical to the actual 2012 exit poll results.

So: GOP phone home! Your missing white voters have been found, and it turns out they weren’t really missing. They were simply sitting out a relatively low turnout election along with a large number of their minority counterparts. They may be back next time if it’s a higher turnout election — but then again so will a lot of minority voters. Bottom line: your demographic dilemma remains the same. The mix of voters is changing fast to your disadvantage and there is no cavalry of white voters waiting in the wings to rescue you.

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