White Voters Can Jump

The following two tables always stun Republicans when I do a presentation:

The point is — John McCain got the same percentage of the white vote while losing in 2008 that George W. Bush got in winning the electoral college in 2000 (note to Dems reading this — what has two thumbs and doesn’t care about Al Gore: me!).  The difference is that the percentage of the white voter share of the electorate has gone down in those eight years.  My point is always that we can no longer simply pay lip service as a party to earning minority votes — instead we have to start earning them, and since African Americans are understandably wedded to Barack Obama, we really need to improve with Hispanics.

But, the data is also interesting on another level.  The table below compares George W. Bush’s standing among whites at the nadir of his Presidency (October 2008) with Obama’s current standing among whites.  There’s no difference.  So, the President the media loves to love is at the same level with a huge chunk of the electorate as the President the media loves to hate (Obama is the former, Bush is the latter in case you’ve been dozing for the last dozen years or so.) 

So let’s war game this out a bit.  The national head-to-head polls are pretty meaningless right now — we haven’t even gone through the GOP primaries, so match-ups featuring either a generic Republican or a relatively undefined Republican (actual named candidates) do not mean much now.  Let’s look at the President’s approval rating — a president’s approval rating tends to reflect their standing on ballots as we move close to a re-election November — and see the impact. 

First, we have to make educated assumptions about the make-up of the electorate.  Looking at the first chart, the percent of the white vote has dropped two-to-four points consistently.  Let’s knock it down another three points to 71% of the electorate.  Secondly, let’s give President Obama the benefit of the doubt and say he gets 95% of the African American vote (and they are 13% of the electorate) — both numbers from the historic 2008 campaign.  Then, let’s give him 66% of the Hispanic/Latino vote as he earned in 2008, and bump their share of the electorate up from 8% in 2008 to 11% in 2012.  Let’s continue to give him 63% of the 5% of the electorate that is Asian/Other. 

So, what does having a white voter support level of 35% mean to him?  Well, he got 53% of the overall vote in 2008.  Of the 53%, 32 points came from whites, and 21 points came from minorities.  The presumed three point bump up in the Hispanic share of the electorate means Obama gets 23 points from minorities in 2012.  So, right now, give him 35% of the white vote (which is worth 25 points), and that means he’s polling 48% of the vote. 

That means several things:

  • While there have been a spate of stories about how the Administration is worried about his African American base, that’s only at the margins.  If he has trouble with them, he’s already lost because of white voters.
  • Hispanic turnout is crucial for the Democrats.  Hispanic vote share is crucial for the Republicans.  If the GOP shaves a few points off of Obama’s 2008 percentage with Hispanics (which was 66%), that will be very costly to him.  In 2000, Bush got 35% of Hispanics (Gore got 62%) and in 2004, Bush lost Hispanics just 44%-53%.
  • If he does not improve much with white voters — particularly swing voters and blue collar Dems — this election is going to be very close, and he needs a third party candidate to soak up some of those votes.

So, he’s in trouble.  But the longer range picture is the challenge facing Republicans.  IF (and that’s a big if) Obama only gets 35% of the white vote and yet he still gets to 48% of the vote nationally, that puts him, and any future Democrat, just a few points away from winning with just one-third of the white vote.  So, while white voters are giving Obama fits right now — and he’s got his work cut out to change it around by November 2012 — the math is starting to get much harder for Republicans over time.  So fellow Republicans, in the long run we’ll have to adapt to how America is changing demographically.

The President’s problems with white voters will impact other Democrats.  In campaigns where the percentage of white votes hits 75% or more, do not be surprised if Democratic candidates are more reluctant to strongly campaign with Obama.  And that’s going to be a lot of key places.  For example, just looking at the Senate seats held by Democrats, Obama’s problems with white voters could come home to roost in the following states:

  • Vermont (okay, bad example to lead with) — 94% white
  • West Virginia — 93% white
  • North Dakota — 89% white
  • Montana — 88% white
  • Minnesota — 83% white
  • Wisconsin — 83% white
  • Nebraska — 82% white
  • Missouri — 81% white
  • Ohio — 81% white
  • Pennsylvania — 80% white
  • Michigan — 77% white
  • Rhode Island — 76% white

(Source: Almanac of American Politics)

Again, I’m not saying that every one of those Senate races will be competitive.  What I am saying is that, besides the obvious competitive races, don’t be surprised if one or two more of those states becomes competitive.  The other, more important, point is that if Obama continues to have a problem among whites, some of the Democrats running for Senate in these states will campaign as though they’d never heard of the guy.