The Real Math Behind Hillary Clinton's Candidacy

Reconstituting the Obama coalition will be the story of 2016—and it's harder than it looks.

Updated on

Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters at Trident Tech on June 17, 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images

Elections are fundamentally about math, and the most fundamental of the fundamental factors is demographics—the ethnic and racial composition of the electorate.

So far, Hispanic voters have been getting the most attention from the media and from candidates courting them in announcement speeches and at events like NALEO, which Hillary Clinton addressed on Thursday. While those votes will certainly be important in 2016, blacks remain the crucial minority bloc for Democratic candidates.

As a number of different scholars, consultants, and journalists have demonstrated, the demographic changes we have seen in recent presidential elections and projections of the trend going forward are clear: The sheer number of eligible voters has shifted and continues to shift toward non-white groups, who overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates.  

In 1996, according to the U.S. Census’ Current Population Study, 79 percent of the eligible electorate (voting-age citizens) was white and 21 percent non-white. In the upcoming 2016 election, approximately 69 percent of the eligible electorate will be white and 31 percent non-white. In other words, there is a projected 10 percentage-point decrease in the population of people who tend to vote more for Republicans and a 10 percentage-point increase in the population of people who tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.

The actual shape of the electorate in a particular year is not only a function of the size of the eligible electorate (those who could vote), but the turnout rates of particular groups (those who actually vote) and their “loyalty.” Stay with me—there is some math involved here.

As shown in Table 1, African Americans comprised 12.5 percent of the eligible electorate in 2012 and their turnout rate was 66.2, the highest among the four groups.  This turnout rate, which was slightly higher than whites and significantly higher than Hispanics and Asian-Americans, caused blacks to punch above their weight in terms of their share of the actual electorate, as shown by the index scores that calculate the percentage of under-performance or over-performance for each group.

Even though Hispanic turnout rate was low and they punched below their weight, their share of the actual voting population actually rose from 2008 to 2012. Overall, according to the CPS,  there were 1.7 million additional Hispanic voters in 2012, 1.4 million additional black voters, and just over a half-million additional voters of Asian descent. On the other hand, there were fully 2 million fewer white voters in 2012 than in 2008.

That's not where the story ends. Keep in mind that the metric of most concern to campaign professionals is net votes generated, which is a function of the size of each group in the electorate (their share) and the differential in their voting patterns (their performance).  

Assuming that the lost (white) voters and the gained (non-white voters) in 2012 voted in the same proportions as all their racial and ethnic counterparts, we can calculate how many votes Republican nominee Mitt Romney lost and President Barack Obama gained because of the decrease in white voters and the increase in non-white voters.

According to exit polls, Obama lost whites by a margin of 20 percentage points (39 percent to 59 percent) while winning black voters by 87 percentage points (93 percent to 6 percent), Hispanics by 44 percentage points (71 percent to 27 percent), and Asian-Americans by 47 percentage points (73 percent to 26 percent).  Multiplying the size of the change in each group by their Democratic performance yields the additional raw votes that Obama gained because of the changes in the composition of the electorate from 2008 to 2012. 

For example, nationwide, there were just under 1.7 million additional black voters in 2012. Multiplying that figure by the 87 percentage-point margin yields a net gain of about 1.5 million votes for Obama.

Overall, the changes in the electorate gave Obama a net plus of over 2.75 million votes. He won by nearly double that—or just under 5 million votes. 

Of course, although nationwide numbers are interesting and illustrative, what ultimately matters is getting to 270 in the Electoral College.  

Winning Florida and Ohio would not have given Romney the presidency, but it would have gotten him within shouting distance. Could additional white voters in Florida, where Romney lost by 75,000 votes, and in Ohio, where Romney lost by 160,000 votes, have put these two big states in his column?

In Florida, according to the exit polls, Romney won whites by 25 percentage points. Thus, if non-white turnout stayed constant and “added” white voters were as loyal as actual white voters, Romney would have needed an additional 300,000 white voters to cast ballots. Obama won 91 percent of Florida's roughly 1 million black voters; a drop in their numbers reduces the number Romney needed on almost a one-for-one basis.

Such a scenario in Florida was possible for 2012, but not likely, and even less so in Ohio. In Ohio, Romney won white voters by 16 percentage points and lost black voters by 93 percentage points. With black turnout held constant, a million more white voters would have needed to come out for Romney to draw even. Again, the only factors that could have brought Romney in range was a decrease in black turnout.

Putting a variety of factors together, Patrick Oakford of the liberal Center for American Progress ran three Electoral College simulations combining statewide projections of eligible voters in 2016 with various assumptions about vote choice or performance. In each, Oakford assumed that racial and ethnic turnout rates in 2016 would be identical to 2012. 

In his first 2016 simulation, he assumed that each group divided their votes (according to state-level exit polls) identically as they did in 2012. Not surprisingly, (since they won comfortably in the Electoral College in 2012), Democrats would also take the presidency in 2016 under this scenario, adding North Carolina to the states Obama won in 2012.

In the second simulation, Oakford assumed 2004 performance levels by both parties (giving the 2016 Republican nominee the benefit of George W. Bush’s relatively strong performance with Hispanics). The race gets closer, but the Democrats win. 

In the final simulation, Oakford gave Republicans the benefit of their high vote share among whites in 2012 and their relatively high vote share among Hispanics in 2004. Even with these favorable assumptions, the Democrats still get over 270.

Oakford's key assumption is that turnout rates by ethnic and racial groups will stay the same. That’s a big assumption. As discussed above, net votes generated is the metric that matters. Because of their near-uniform support for Democrats, increased turnout by black voters translate on an almost one-to-one basis with increase in net Democratic support. The number of eligible Hispanic voters is certainly increasing, but their turnout rates are low, and, while they strongly support Democrats, they do not uniformly do so. Furthermore, Hispanic voters are more likely to live in uncompetitive states like California, Texas, and New York.

High turnout rates among black Americans are key to the “lock” that Oakford and others argue that the Democrats have on presidential elections. 

Still, the proportion of black Americans in the eligible electorate is holding steady. The increases in their share of the actual electorate in 2008 and 2012 and their contribution to Democratic vote totals were due to high rates of turnout and phenomenally high rates of loyalty.  Can we assume the 2016 Democratic nominee will automatically benefit from similarly high levels of black turnout and loyalty? 

Some of the turnout increases among blacks in 2008 and 2012 may have been due to the Democrats' technical mobilizing wizardry. But it seems reasonable to assume that most of it was due to the fact that Obama was on the top of the ticket.

There’s some evidence supporting that. We know what black turnout was in 2010 and 2014, when Democrats spent just as much time, effort, and money as in the presidential contests, but Obama was not on the ticket.

Furthermore, according to the CPS, black turnout was not only higher than white turnout in a set of Southern states that were not at all targeted for mobilization efforts in 2012 (Louisiana, 69.5 percent; Mississippi, 82.4 percent; and South Carolina, 69.5 percent) but equal to or higher than black turnout in some targeted states (Florida, 57.6 percent; Virginia, 67.2 percent; and North Carolina, 80.2 percent). This strongly suggests that high black turnout was mainly due to Obama.

To be sure, the demographic math for Republicans is daunting and they continue to face huge challenges with Hispanic voters. Furthermore, Democrats do not have to replicate completely their high 2008 and 2012 turnout and loyalty performance among black Americans to win. 

Still, Democrats must get close to that, and the challenges involved in getting close are just one more bit of evidence that 2016 will be a competitive contest and that there is no Democratic lock on the 2016 Electoral College door.

CORRECTION: This article was updated to correct information in the second chart.

Ken Goldstein is professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and is Bloomberg Politics' polling and political advertising analyst.

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