Sabato's Crystal Ball

Is Doubling Down on White Voters a Viable Strategy for the Republican Party?

Alan I. Abramowitz and Ruy Teixeira, Guest Columnists July 11th, 2013

Perhaps the key question in American presidential politics is how the growing and overwhelmingly Democratic nonwhite vote will affect future elections. If Republicans can’t capture a bigger share of that vote, are they doomed to minority status in presidential elections? Or can Republicans find other paths to victory? In a series of articles for RealClearPolitics.com, Sean Trende — a shrewd analyst and contributor to our book that analyzed the 2012 election, Barack Obama and the New America — suggested that Republicans may be able to make up for deficits among nonwhite voters by improving their share of the white vote. In response, Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz and Ruy Teixeira, an expert on American political demographics, present a powerful counterpoint, arguing that Republicans will find it harder and harder to win national elections without better performance among nonwhite voters. Their persuasive take on the great American political demographic argument follows. — The Editors

In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s relatively comfortable reelection victory in 2012 — a win fueled by massive margins among African Americans, Hispanics and other nonwhite voters — an intense debate has begun among Republican leaders and strategists over the future direction of the party. The GOP has now lost the national popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Yet according to national exit polls, Republican candidates won the white vote by double-digit margins in the last four of these elections, including a 20-point margin in 2012.

Given these results, some prominent Republican strategists, including Karl Rove, believe that the key to the party’s future viability in presidential elections is finding ways to increase its share of the growing nonwhite vote. Since 1992, according to national exit polls, the nonwhite share of the electorate has increased from 13% to 28%, and this trend is almost certain to continue for many years to come. Based on census data, the voters who will be entering the electorate over the next few decades will include a much larger proportion of nonwhites, and especially Latinos, than the voters who will be leaving the electorate.

But not all GOP strategists agree with the approach advocated by Rove and his allies or with the necessity of increasing the party’s share of the nonwhite vote in order to achieve success in future presidential elections. In a recent series of posts at RealClearPolitics.com, analyst Sean Trende has argued that Republicans can effectively compete in future presidential elections without substantially increasing their support among Hispanics and other nonwhite voters by focusing on increasing turnout and support among white voters, who will continue to make up the large majority of the American electorate.

Trende’s argument that the GOP can achieve success by, essentially, doubling down on white voters rests largely on an analysis of racial voting patterns in presidential elections over the past several decades. According to Trende, Republicans have significantly increased their performance among white voters over time. If this trend continues, he argues, given a reasonably favorable political and economic environment, Republican candidates should have a good chance of overcoming the Democratic advantage among nonwhite voters in future presidential elections.

The problem with the PVI

Trende’s claim that Republicans have increased their performance among white voters is based on his calculation of a statistic known as the PVI, or Partisan Voting Index, for white voters. Essentially, this statistic is used to compare the political preferences of a given group to the electorate as a whole. The PVI for white voters compares the Democratic share of the white vote with the Democratic share of the vote in the overall electorate. For our purposes, however, we have calculated the PVI based on the Democratic vote margin among white voters compared with the Democratic vote margin in the overall electorate in order to reduce the impact of votes for third party and independent candidates.

Over time, as the data in Figure 1 show, the PVI for white voters has become increasingly negative, with an especially dramatic decline since 1992. There is no question that in comparison with the overall electorate, white voters have become more Republican over time. But the interpretation of this result is not as straightforward as Trende suggests. That is because the PVI for white voters reflects both the Democratic margin among white voters and the size of the nonwhite electorate.

In fact, the main reason that the gap between the Democratic margin in the overall electorate and the Democratic margin among white voters has increased over time is not because whites have become more Republican but because nonwhites, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, now make up a larger share of the overall electorate. As just one example, the PVI of the white vote in 2012 (-24) was far more negative than it was in 1988 (-13). Yet Democratic margins among both whites and nonwhites were essentially the same in each election. The real change: Nonwhites were just 15% of voters in 1988 compared to 28% in 2012. In other words, the rapid growth of the very Democratic nonwhite share of the electorate makes it seem like white voters are becoming more Republican than they actually are.

Correlational analysis underscores this point. For the 16 presidential elections between 1952 and 2012, the correlation between the PVI for white voters and the Democratic margin among white voters is only .43, while the correlation between the PVI for white voters and the nonwhite share of the overall electorate is a much stronger -.92.

Figure 1: Trend in Partisan Voting Index for white voters, 1952-2012

Source: Gallup Poll for 1952-1972 results, National Exit Polls for 1976-2012

We can estimate the relative contributions of the Democratic margin among white voters and the size of the nonwhite electorate to the PVI for white voters by performing a regression analysis with the PVI for white voters as the dependent variable and the Democratic margin among white voters and nonwhite share of the electorate as independent variables. The results of this regression analysis are displayed in Table 1. They show very clearly that the major influence on the PVI for white voters over these 16 elections is not the Democratic margin among white voters itself but the size of the nonwhite electorate.

Table 1: Results of regression analysis of Partisan Voting Index for white voters


Source: Democratic margin among white voters based on Gallup Poll for 1952-1972 and National Exit Polls for 1976-2012. Nonwhite share of electorate based on data from American National Election Studies surveys for 1952-1972 and National Exit Polls for 1976-2012.

When we directly examine the data on the Democratic margin among white voters over time, there is little evidence of any Republican trend. For all 16 presidential elections between 1952 and 2012, the correlation between years elapsed and Democratic margin among white voters is a slightly negative but statistically insignificant -.16. For the 10 presidential elections between 1976 and 2012, the correlation is a slightly positive and statistically insignificant .02. Based on these results, it is clear that the trend in the PVI for white voters over this time period is due almost entirely to the growing impact of nonwhite voters on electoral outcomes.

Viewed from this perspective, the growing gap between the Democratic margin among white voters and the Democratic margin in the overall electorate should probably be viewed by Republican strategists not as an encouraging sign but as a source of considerable concern. What this growing gap really means is that the Democratic presidential candidate can win the national popular vote with a smaller share of the white vote with each successive election. By 2016, nonwhites should make up around 30% of the overall electorate, and the Democratic candidate would be able to win the national popular vote while losing the white vote by 24 percentage points.

Comparing trends in net Democratic margin among white and nonwhite voters

We can gain a clearer picture of the combined impact of changes in the relative size of the white and nonwhite voting groups along with changes in the Democratic margins among white and nonwhite voters by comparing trends in the net Democratic margins among white and nonwhite voters over the past 60 years. The net Democratic margin is based on the Democratic margin in each racial group multiplied by the size of the group so it represents the group’s contribution to the overall outcome of the election. Thus, the net Democratic margin among whites plus the net Democratic margin among nonwhites should add up to the overall Democratic margin in each election.

Data on the Democratic margin among nonwhite voters was taken from the Gallup Poll, which provides estimates for nonwhites as a group for all presidential elections since 1952. These estimates appear to be very accurate: Taken together, the estimated net Democratic margin among white voters and the estimated net Democratic margin among nonwhite voters explain 99% of the variance in actual election margins.

Figure 2 displays the trend in the net Democratic margin among white voters between 1952 and 2012. The results show that there is only a very slight negative trend over this 60-year period. This trend reflects the combined effects of the declining size of the white vote and the changing Democratic margin among white voters.

Figure 2: Trend in net Democratic margin among white voters, 1952-2012

Source: Gallup Poll for 1952-1972 results, National Exit Polls for 1976-2012

Figure 3 displays the trend in the net Democratic margin among nonwhite voters between 1952 and 2012. The results here contrast sharply with those in Figure 2, showing a very clear and consistent upward trend based mainly on the growing size of the nonwhite electorate. As a result, Democratic presidential candidates have realized a much larger net advantage from the nonwhite vote in recent years than they did from the 1950s through the 1980s. Moreover, these gains are likely to continue for the foreseeable future given the projected growth of the nonwhite vote unless Republicans are able to reduce the Democratic margin among nonwhite voters.

Figure 3: Trend in net Democratic margin among nonwhite voters, 1952-2012

Source: Gallup Poll for 1952-1972 results, National Exit Polls for 1976-2012

Conclusion

Our findings indicate that the growing size of the nonwhite electorate constitutes a major challenge to the Republican Party in future presidential elections. This does not mean that a Republican candidate cannot win the presidency in 2016 or later. Given a sufficiently favorable political and economic environment, it certainly would be possible for a Republican presidential candidate to win the White House despite a growing nonwhite electorate, but this would require winning a much larger share of the white vote than any Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. And Reagan accomplished this feat in an era when the electorate was much less polarized and party loyalties were much weaker than they are today. Moreover, our results demonstrate that unless Republicans improve their performance among Hispanics, African Americans and other nonwhite voters, the task facing Republicans is almost certainly going to become more and more difficult over time as the nonwhite share of the electorate continues to grow. Doubling down on white voters does not look like a very promising approach to restoring the White House to GOP control.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and author, most recently, of The Polarized Public? Why American Government is So Dysfunctional. Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at both the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress and is the author or co-author of several books, including The Emerging Democratic Majority (with John B. Judis).