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The US electorate is becoming more diverse and groups such as Hispanics and Asians will exert greater electoral clout over time. But a new report from the Census on voting in 2016 shows that the transformation of the electoral landscape won’t happen overnight. This is one of the many interesting stories from the Census’s report.
The Census has collected voting and registration data since 1964 through a biennial supplement to the Current Population Survey. Starting in 1978, the bureau began to include citizenship data, adding more clarity to the picture. The Census’s latest report on voting and registration in 2016, based on a survey taken after the election, is the most comprehensive source of data on 2016 voting for the population of all age-eligible citizens and for many key subgroups. It also gives us important information about what some analysts got right and wrong in their election models or predictions.
Let’s look at some specifics, starting with the demographic composition of the electorate.
Many analysts predicted that minorities would represent a larger share of the electorate in 2016 than in 2012. They did not. Taken together, Hispanics, blacks, and people of other races made up virtually identical shares of the vote in 2016 (26.6 percent) and 2012 (26.2 percent).
The long-awaited surge in Hispanic turnout did not occur in 2016. Hispanics were a larger share of voters in 2016 (9.2 percent) than in 2012 (8.4 percent), but their rate of voting was essentially flat, 48 percent in 2012 and 47.6 percent in 2016. In another interesting note on the data, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of eligible Hispanic non-voters was higher than the number of eligible Hispanic voters, as has been the case in presidential elections since 1996. Hispanics’ electoral clout does not yet match their demographic weight. Hispanics tilt toward Democrats, giving about two-thirds of their votes to them in recent years.
Since 1996, when 53 percent of blacks reported voting, black turnout rose with every national election, reaching its high point in 2012, when 66.6 percent of blacks voted. That year, the rate of voting by blacks was higher than the rate of voting by whites for the first time in the data series. Many expected that black turnout would continue its steady increase of the past two decades. In 2016, however, black voter turnout declined to 59.6 percent, significantly below its record high and below the white rate (65.3 percent). The group is one of the few monolithic bloc votes in American politics, tilting overwhelmingly toward Democrats.
Finally, the white share of the electorate did not decline as it has in most recent presidential contests. As the Census noted, “[F]or the most part, from 1980 to 2012, the share of reported voters who were non-Hispanic white decreased from one election to another.” In 1980, 87.6 percent of voters were white; in 2012; 73.7 percent were. And, in 2016, their share was 73.3 percent. White voter turnout increased from 64.1 to 65.3, again defying the predictions of some.
The Census collects information on other factors such as age and sex in addition to race, shedding more light on the electoral landscape.
Young people continued to be less reliable voters than older ones. In 2016, turnout among young people ages 18–29 years was 46.1 percent; among those 65 and older it was 70.9 percent. Democrats, who draw some of their strongest support from the young, have reasons to be encouraged by what the Census found. According to the Bureau, young voters ages 18–29 were the only age group to report higher turnout compared to 2012.
Since 1980, women have voted at a higher rate than men, outnumbering them by about 8 million in recent elections. In 2016, once again, women voted at a higher rate than men (63.3 to 59.3 percent) and 10 million more of them voted than men. The turnout rate among women in 2016 (63.3 percent) was similar to what it was in 2012 (63.7 percent). Women did not surge at the polls. Neither did men, whose turnout rate was 59.7 percent in 2012 and 59.3 percent in 2016.
Overall, how did we do? Was turnout up or down? In 2016, 61.4 of the age-eligible citizen population reported voting, a number the Census described as “not statistically different from the 61.8 percent who reported voting in 2012.”
Changes in the demographic make-up of our population do not automatically translate into changes at the ballot box. Predicting the share and partisan tilt of various groups based on what happened in the past is an exceedingly difficult task for campaigns and pundits alike. The results from 2016 remind us yet again that those predictions don’t always line up with reality.
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