Democrats’ white problem is only a Southern white problem

Among the things I’ve been most intrigued about in this election, is the huge variation in the white vote across states.  For example, among the swing states, whites in NC voted 68% for Romney, versus 51% in Iowa in New Hampshire.  Nate Cohn has a nice piece on this:

Romney’s strong national showing among white voters was almost exclusively driven by historic support from Southern and Appalachian white voters. In many counties, Obama’s performance was the worst by any Democrat since McGovern or, in some places, ever. Even a quick glance at overwhelmingly white, Southern, or Appalachian counties with a history of offering even limited support to Democratic candidates shows Obama performing anywhere from 15 to 30 points worse than Kerry did eight years ago. Obama even lost more than 50 points compared to Kerry’s performance in several “coal country” counties in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

Outside the South, Romney’s performance among white voters was anything but historic. He ran behind Bush’s tallies in most of the northern half of the United States. While some believed that Obama’s weakness among white voters would translate into opportunities for Romney in overwhelmingly white states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, Obama ultimately won these three states by 5.6 to 6.9 points, even though Bush never lost any by more than 1.3 points. More broadly, you can quickly consider changes in Democratic support among white voters between ’04 and ’12 in the nine states where whites represent at least 85 percent of the population. These states aren’t exactly representative of white voters elsewhere, but the big picture is about right: outside of the South, Romney ran behind Bush among white voters, but he made up for it in Appalachia and the rest of the South.

Or, to put it in blunt visual terms, here’s a graph Kevin Drum made

And finally, Yglesias make a point about the composition of the electorate over time that’s largely been overlooked:

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This chart above that I made is a little bit of context for claims that Republican operatives were surprised to see the white share of the electorate down from 2008 rather than up. Their theory, I guess, is that putting Obama on the ticket led to a one-off increase in minority voting that would head into reverse when he ran for re-election for some reason.

The truth, however, is that there’s no discernable “Obama surge” of minority voting here at all. The white share of the electorate has evolved as far back as exit polling is available in a pretty steady fashion. The only year in which the white share rose was 1992. Ross Perot, not Barack Obama, was able to reshape the electorate by perhaps engaging some set of disaffected white people who are totally tuned out of the regular political process. Be that as it may, there’s no secret Obama sauce in this—it just reflects the evolution of the country. In any given year, the cohort of new 18 year-olds is less white than the national average and the cohort of people who die is whiter than the national average.

White identity politics is just a political strategy whose effectiveness is in terminal decline.

Obviously, many Republicans have been able to figure this out.  The question is will the party as a whole be able to before they’ve lost a whole generation of non-white voters.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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