The No-Show Problem

by SALENA ZITO December 10, 2012

Our political parties have an alarming problem with white middle-class voters.

Both parties failed to connect with them in this presidential election - from rural voters in the Midwest, Plains and Allegheny Mountains to Iowa's "Reagan Democrats" (who did not show up for Republican Mitt Romney), as well as along the Appalachian Trail from New York to Mississippi (which rejected Democrat Barack Obama).

Many pundits point to high turnout by minorities and young people as the key component of Obama's victory.

But Sean Trende, an analyst at RealClearPolitics, points to a problem that flew under the radar: White voters did not turn out, and they did not turn out in significant numbers.

Based on preliminary numbers, Trende estimated that, on Election Day, about 91.6 million votes were cast by whites, 16.6 million by blacks, 12.7 million by Latinos and 6.3 million by other groups (not all final counts are in yet).

Compare this with 2008, when there were 98.6 million white voters, 16.3 million blacks, 11 million Latinos and 5.9 million from other groups.

Assuming 7 million white votes were outstanding, he estimated that "the African-American vote only increased by about 300,000 votes, or 0.2 percent, from 2008 to 2012. The Latino vote increased by a healthier 1.7 million votes, while the ‘other' category increased by about 470,000 votes."

What stands out to Trende is the decline in the number of whites for both parties.

Lara Brown, an expert on the Electoral College, believes Democrats have a problem with middle-class whites showing up in weak numbers, while Republicans have a problem with whites just not showing up.

"The real difference between those voters is what their jobs are," she explained. "Democrats have a problem with blue-collar workers and Republicans are having a problem with more rural voters like farmers."

A University of Virginia Center for Politics analysis outlines the loss of the blue-collar segment of the Democrats' coalition in the part of Appalachia stretching south from New York, including chunks of the Rust Belt that once were decent sources of votes for Democrat presidential candidates.

The analysis shows Southern Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton fared well in that area. Carter won more than two-thirds of those 428 Appalachian counties in 1976, and Clinton won close to half.

Obama won only 7 percent of those counties in his re-election and lost every county in West Virginia.

Romney's white-vote problem was nowhere more glaring than in Ohio, according to Brown. She compared exit polls from 2012 and 2004, when Republicans won the state during George W. Bush's re-election.

"The percentage of rural voters in the electorate declined by 6 percentage points, while the percentage of urban voters remained the same in both elections," she said, adding that the number of suburban voters increased by 6 percentage points.

"What is interesting is that Romney did not have a problem with suburban voters," said Brown. "Romney outperformed Obama in Ohio with suburban whites. Bush lost those voters to Kerry, 49-51, while Romney beat Obama, 51-47.

"So, if Obama sees no increase in urban voters over Kerry in Ohio and loses suburban voters, the problem points to the rural voter just not showing up."

Brown points back to the heated Ohio GOP primary between Romney and Rick Santorum as evidence that the former Massachusetts governor had a difficult time connecting with voters who could have handed him the state in the general election.

"Well, it's hard to calculate whether or not Santorum's primary voters did cast votes for Romney," she said. "It is fascinating to look at the total number of votes Santorum earned in 41 rural counties, which was 127,795" - and to then note Romney lost Ohio to Obama by about 107,000 votes.

No easy conclusion for either political party can be reached from any of this data, at least not yet.

But the substantial dive in white-voter participation for both presidential candidates is clearly a concern that each party's establishment needs to review.

 

Contributing Editor Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and editorial page columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She can be reached at szito@tribweb.com.


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