2008 Results: Fewer White Voters, While Minorities Set Records
America's electorate may have changed in striking and subtle ways in 2008 compared to 2004, according to a preliminary study by a national voter registration group that found sizeable numbers of white voters did not vote in battleground states this November while record numbers of minorities turned out and voted.
"The overall message is total ballots cast by white Americans was down, while African Americans and Latinos cast way more ballots than they did in 2004," said Jody Herman, a researcher with Project Vote. "And young voters, age 18-29, cast over 1.8 million more ballots than in 2005, which is a 9 percent increase. That increase was greater than any other age group."
Nationally, 3.35 million more people voted for president in 2008 than four years ago, according to unofficial state results compiled by Project Vote. That slight increase in voters, and lower-than-expected turnout in swing states like Ohio, has left election administrators and academics pondering what happened in a year where the public appeared to be very engaged. Most academics stressed it was too early to draw any conclusion about a changing electorate, because states are not done counting votes.
"They're still counting the ballots in California. They're still counting the ballots in Missouri. They're still counting the ballots in Ohio," said Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. But Sabato, who said he spent Monday on a plane reviewing 2008 exit polls, said the election's broad outlines were clear.
"I think absolutely white Republicans did not show up," he said. "They were turned off, disillusioned. They did not turn out. Democratic voters did come out. They couldn't wait to vote."
"It's the same electorate but with different turnout rates with one exception; presumably the Latino electorate is actually growing as more and more Latinos becomes citizens," said Alexander Keyssar, a Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Still, the preliminary research by Project Vote, which organized registration drives in two dozen states in 2008, was striking. It found 1.18 million fewer whites voted on November 4 compared to November 2004.
In contrast, 2.88 million more African Americans, 1.52 million more Latinos, 67,000 more Asian Americans and 1.32 million members of other minorities, voted this fall compared to four years ago. That is 1.18 million fewer white voters and 6.96 million more minority voters.
Project Vote said its findings would be adjusted as more data is available. However, a report issued by the group last year, "Representational Bias in the 2006 Electorate," concluded, "If all eligible minorities had voted at the rate of non-Hispanic whites, more than 7.5 million additional people would have participated in the 2006 elections."
Thus, the appearance of an African-American presidential candidate with a sympathetic message may have prompted the nation's minorities to vote at levels approaching white voters -- if final state vote counts do not upend Project Vote's figures. Its findings also suggest the U.S. electorate is not an inflexible assembly of voting constituencies, but has segments that are mobilized -- or demobilized -- depending on the year, candidate and message.
"I wouldn't look at the overall turnout numbers," said one registration expert who reviewed Project Vote's numbers but did not want to be quoted. "The story becomes interesting when you look at the specifics of who tuned out and who didn't."
Project Vote looked at ballot-casting statistics in seven battleground states. In four of those states -- Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and New Mexico -- there were fewer white voters this year compared to 2004. All those states and Pennsylvania, Florida and Nevada, also saw an increase in Latino voters in 2008. And all the states, except for New Mexico, saw an increase in African-American voters compared to 2004.
The state with the biggest drop in white voters was Ohio, which saw 537,832 or 11 percent fewer white voters casting ballots this year, according to Project Vote. Ohio saw 65,922 additional African American voters, a 13 percent increase; it had 39,578 more Latino voters, a 23 percent increase. Overall, Ohio had 441,000 fewer voters in 2008 compared to 2004.
"Everyone has been struggling to figure out why there are fewer voters," said Bryan Clark, a spokesman in Ohio's secretary of state's office. "I think there was a suppressed white turnout in blue-collar areas. The Reagan Democrats stayed home and the social conservatives weren't excited by the McCain-Palin ticket."
But Clark took issue with some of Project Vote's numbers. First, Ohio was still verifying 200,000 provisional ballots, he said, which would cut into the group's overall state findings. Using 2004 exit poll data as a baseline for comparison with 2008 was also problematic, he said, because the 2004 Ohio exit poll had many flaws.
Keyssar also had reservations about the Ohio figures. In an e-mail, he said:
"It suggests two obvious trends. First, that Obama and the Democrats were able to mobilize and motivate minority voters in a probably unprecedented way. Second, it may suggest that Republicans had more difficulty turning out their voters, but it's hard to be sure about that without knowing who the white voters were who showed up last time and not this time. Maybe it was evangelicals who stayed home because they were unenthused about McCain; or maybe it was previously democratic voters who stayed home because they were unenthused about Obama. The statewide data don't give us a clear picture."
Keyssar said it was too soon to know if the 2008 election was similar to previous presidential elections that saw major shifts in the electorate, such as the 1936 election where many immigrants voted for the first time, or the 1968 election, the first election after enacting the Voting Rights Act, which expanded voting rights to minorities, particularly African Americans.
According to Project Vote's preliminary figures, the minority group that saw the largest nationwide percentage gain in voting were African Americans, who saw a 21 percent increase compared to 2004. In Florida, the increase was 180,000 voters or 20 percent. In Nevada, it was 38,500 voters or 66 percent. In Missouri, where the presidential victor has not yet been decided and ballots are still being cast, it was 158,5000 voters or 72 percent.
El Voto Castigo
The increased voting among Latinos was equally striking. In Pennsylvania, the increase was 64,000 voters or 37 percent, according to the group. In Missouri, it was nearly 31,000 voters or 111 percent. In Colorado, it was nearly 123,000 voters or 71 percent. In Nevada, it was nearly 72,000 voters or 86 percent.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigration reform group based in Washington, D.C., said neither the turnout increase among Latinos -- nor the swing in support to Democrats -- were surprising. Here's how he put it in an e-mail:
No, I'm not surprised. Telling people you don't like them and don't want them is not a winning electoral strategy. But that is what the Republican Party has been saying to immigrants, Latino immigrants in particular, for the past four years. No surprise, then, that record numbers of Latinos turned out in 2008 and that the swing away from Republicans to Democrats among Latino immigrants in particular was dramatic. Based on comparable studies, Latino immigrants nearly split their vote in 2004, supporting John Kerry over George W. Bush by 52%-48%. In 2008 a larger group of the same voters supported Obama over McCain by 78%-22%. That is a whopping swing of 46%. You might call it "el voto castigo" (the punishment vote) for that is what Latino immigrants did to Republicans who have so mishandled this issue that even John McCain, a past hero on immigration reform, got trounced."
Sharry did not call 2008's apparent increase in minority voters a mandate. However, he did say the election placed federal immigration reform back on Congress' agenda. He said that a failure to deliver on behalf of the newest voters would hurt Democrats.
"Democrats need to be careful," he said. "If first-time voters find that the President they put into office does not deliver for them, many may become disillusioned and stay home next time."
Other Washington analysts also were cautious about drawing conclusions.
"This does not necessarily mean that the shape of the electorate has changed in a more fundamental and lasting way," said Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank. "It remains to be seen whether the increased turnout among minorities will be sustained over time. Part of these patterns of turnout in battleground states is probably due to the relative effectiveness of voter mobilization efforts."
Mann also said many minority voters are assuming Obama will address their concerns.
"I suspect the increased support of Obama by minorities is partly symbolic, partly an embrace of the Democratic Party," Mann said. "There was little discussion in the campaign about a minority agenda."