Posted on June 9, 2016

There Are More White Voters Than People Think. That’s Good News for Trump.

Nate Cohn, New York Times, June 9, 2016

One of the biggest reasons Donald Trump is considered to be a long shot to win the presidency is the diversity of the country.


But a growing body of evidence suggests that there is still a path, albeit a narrow one, for Mr. Trump to win without gains among nonwhite voters.

New analysis by The Upshot shows that millions more white, older working-class voters went to the polls in 2012 than was found by exit polls on Election Day. This raises the prospect that Mr. Trump has a larger pool of potential voters than generally believed.

The wider path may help explain why Mr. Trump is competitive in early general election surveys against Hillary Clinton. And it calls into question the prevailing demographic explanation of recent elections, which held that Barack Obama did very poorly among whites and won only because young and minority voters turned out in record numbers. This story line led Republicans to conclude that they had maximized their support from white voters and needed to reach out to Hispanics to win in 2016.

Those previous conclusions emerged from exit polls released on election night. The new data from the census, voter registration files, polls and the finalized results tells a subtly different story with potential consequences for the 2016 election.

The data implies that Mr. Obama was not as weak among white voters as typically believed. He fared better than his predecessors among white voters outside the South. Demographic shifts weren’t so important: He would have been re-elected even with an electorate as old and white as it was in 2004. Latino voters did not put Mr. Obama over the top, as many argued in the days after Mr. Obama’s re-election. He would have won even if he had done as poorly among Latino voters as John Kerry.

This is all good news for Mr. Trump. There’s more room for him to make gains among white working-class voters than many assumed–enough to win without making gains among nonwhite or college-educated white voters.


Over all, the exit polls suggest that 23 percent of voters in 2012 were white, over age 45 and without a college degree. Catalist puts this group at 29 percent, and the census at 30 percent–implying 10 million more voters than the 23 percent figure.


The larger number of white working-class voters implies that Democrats are far more dependent on winning white working-class voters, and therefore more vulnerable to a populist candidate like Mr. Trump.

Over all, 34 percent of Mr. Obama’s supporters were white voters without a college degree, compared with 25 percent in the exit polls, according to an Upshot statistical model that integrated census data, actual results and 15,000 interviews from various pre-election surveys. The model yields a full alternative to the exit polls that assume an older, whiter electorate like the one depicted by the census. {snip}

“This is a great way to deal with the limits of traditional surveys,” said Andrew Gelman, a professor at Columbia who popularized the statistical technique known as multilevel regression and post-stratification. “It smooths out noise, reduces bias and arrives at better estimates for smaller groups.”


Hispanic voters played only a modest role in Mr. Romney’s defeat. They cost him Florida–a must-win state for Republicans, but also the closest contest. Elsewhere, Mr. Obama would have easily survived even if Mr. Romney had equaled George W. Bush’s 2004 share of Hispanic voters.

All of this is good news for a Republican who intends to win with greater strength among white working-class voters, like Mr. Trump.


The Missing-White-Voter Theory. There has long been a notion that Mr. Romney was hurt by “missing white voters,” those who voted in 2008 but skipped the 2012 presidential election. And the G.O.P.’s hope is that Mr. Trump could benefit with a surge of those Republican-leaning voters. But that view of 2012 is largely unsupported by the data.


According to data from L2, a nonpartisan voter file vendor, the missing white voters were far more likely to be registered Democrats, or to have participated in Democratic primaries, than the white voters who actually did turn out.

Is it possible that some of these Democrats are actually ready to vote for Mr. Trump? Yes. But it’s a stretch to argue that a huge share of them would have voted for Mr. Romney or would vote for Mr. Trump, especially considering how young they are. (Mr. Trump’s support is weaker among the young). They could just as easily be supporters of Bernie Sanders.


The real pool of missing white voters are those who haven’t participated in any recent election, or aren’t even registered to vote. There are millions of these missing white voters–but they will be much harder to mobilize. Many are young, and might not be especially favorable to Mr. Trump. The older ones are true bystanders in American politics.

To win, Mr. Trump will need to make gains among white working-class voters. The earliest evidence, and polling this early can be quite inaccurate, suggests that he is doing that handily.

So far, Mr. Trump leads Mrs. Clinton by 27 points among white voters without a degree, 58 percent to 31 percent, in the last six national surveys from major news organizations. In the final 2012 polls, Mr. Romney led by just 19 points among such voters, 58 percent to 39 percent, over Mr. Obama.


Mr. Trump’s big advantage among white working-class voters hasn’t translated to a much stronger position in national polls. That’s because he is underperforming Mr. Romney’s 2012 results among white voters with a college degree and nonwhite voters, often by a far greater amount than he’s gaining among working-class whites.

The same polls show Mrs. Clinton leading among college-educated white voters by 47 percent to 42 percent. It’s a reversal from 2012, when Mr. Romney led that group by six points, 52 percent to 46 percent in the final polls.