This post is the summary of six posts on demographics and the election at
The 2008 electorate was unlike any in American history. Whites represented just 74% of the electorate and the burgeoning non-white vote offered 81% of its support to Obama. There is no guarantee that non-white voters will turnout and support Obama as they did in 2008, but the best evidence suggests that they will, especially since demographic changes will mitigate or potentially outweigh possible reductions in non-white turnout rates.
If the non-white vote supports Obama to the extent it did in 2008, Romney will need to compensate by holding Obama to 38% of the white vote. In the modern political era, it has taken extraordinary circumstances for Democrats to do so poorly. The last Democratic candidate to fall so low was Walter Mondale, who only won 35% of the white vote in 1984. Even Michael Dukakis won 40% of the white vote in 1988. In 2010, House Democrats only won 37% of the white vote, demonstrating that Romney's task is not unachievable, even if the House GOP benefited from a relatively friendly electorate.
Although a Romney victory may require an extraordinary performance with white voters, anemic economic growth, high unemployment, and abysmal right/wrong track numbers suggest 2012 may indeed be extraordinary. After all, the fundamentals are not appreciably better than they were in 2010, when the House GOP blazed the demographic trail that Romney will try and follow in 2012.
While the environment could be conducive to an extraordinary GOP performance among whites in 2012, such a performance will still be exceptionally challenging. After all, there is a reason why fatally flawed candidates like Dukakis and Kerry managed to reach 40% of the white vote, or why Mondale still received 35%; such weak performances require Democrats to lose voters who traditionally vote for Democratic candidates.
Recent polling from Pew Research clarifies the profile of the critical white swing voters necessary for Romney to overcome Obama's edge with non-white voters. Unfortunately for GOP chances, Romney's fate rests with unsympathetic groups, including white Democrats without a college degree who are skeptical of Obama's performance, and college-educated voters who approve of Obama's performance. Although I have framed these two groups in terms of education, women are disproportionately represented in both groups, which likely adds to Romney's challenge.
Another way to consider Romney’s challenge is in terms of the number of white voters who appear unwaveringly committed to Obama. Even at Obama's nadir in October and November 2011, when the President's approval rating dipped to the low-30s among white voters after the debt ceiling crisis and his failed jobs bill, Obama continued to receive 38% of the vote among white voters, since Democrats with deep reservations about the Obama administration remained willing to offer their support in a hypothetical general election match-up. According to recent polls, Obama already holds the critical 38% of white voters, even before including any undecided voters who may ultimately support his reelection.
These demographic shifts also underlie Romney's disadvantage in the electoral college. Obama's support among non-white voters has combined with enduring support among college educated whites to rejigger the electoral map, moving New Mexico firmly into the Obama column and leaving Nevada, Virginia, and Colorado leaning blue. These shifts have left Romney with an unenviable choice: either persuade college educated Obama supporters, or win the Upper Midwestern states that Republicans typically lose, like Wisconsin or Minnesota.
In this context, Obama's decision to invest in a massive ground operation is unsurprising. According to media reports, the Obama campaign has already spent more than one hundred million dollars building and maintaining the framework for massive voter registration, outreach, and eventually GOTV efforts. Given the polarized electorate and the clear relationship between demographics and Obama's chances, spending tremendous sums to ensure optimal turnout seems eminently advisable.
Similarly, Romney's chances would improve markedly if he made gains among non-white voters. The economy has disproportionately hurt Latino families, although policy choices may have foreclosed any opening. Consequently, the incipient GOP effort to craft an alternative to the DREAM Act is unsurprising, and neither is the possibility of a non-white male Vice Presidential candidate. It is easy to imagine the Republicans again needing a "game change" if Romney's appeal to non-white voters fails to resonate and Obama's share of the white vote exceeds 38% in August.
Given the prevailing political climate, it would be very unwise the dismiss the possibility of a Romney victory. However, analysts should be honest about what Romney is trying to accomplish. He is in uncharted territory.
Let me emphasize that no principle or rule prevents Romney from conquering uncharted territory. No party received more than 60% of the Congressional vote since the 1820s... until 2010. The GOP has incrementally conquered uncharted territory since 1948, whether it was Goldwater's sweep of the Deep South after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act or Bush's victory in West Virginia. Entering and winning uncharted territory is nothing new and sometimes easy, at least in retrospect.
The problem for Romney is that the uncharted territory doesn't appear friendly, at least according to current polling, and that suggests Obama has a demographic advantage. From this perspective, Romney's victory path looks more like McCain's bid for Pennsylvania - a frontal assault on the nearest redoubt - than Obama's deft bid for Virginia or Bush's for its western progeny. It is possible that we eventually view a Romney win in a state like Minnesota or Wisconsin in those terms, but the current polling does not yet point toward an opening.
If Romney pushes past George H.W. Bush’s share of the white vote and into a close race nationally, his path to the Presidency becomes increasingly difficult. After maximizing his share of white Republicans and genuine swing voters, Romney will need to trudge through Democratic-leaning whites. While many of these voters do not approve of the Obama administration, they currently appear willing to revert to their partisan leanings, perhaps even when Obama’s Presidency was at its lowest point.
The election is far away and exogenous factors, including the possibility that the economy relapses into another recession, could easily undermine the political status quo. However, even in this hostile political atmosphere, Obama appears to hold the requisite share of the white vote and is poised to repeat his historic performance among non-white voters. So long as the demographic contours of the race remain unchanged, Romney will remain deceptively close, but with victory slightly out of reach.