Elections

Election Analysts Discover Even More White Voters

A new study says the 2016 vote was whiter than the exit polls showed.

They voted.

Photographer: George Frey/Getty Images

It seems that even more white voters are coming out of the electoral woodwork. 

Political analyst Ruy Teixeira and co-authors have just produced a study arguing that the exit-poll data in 2016 was all wrong. They’re not the first to do so. The election was barely concluded before pollsters Matt Barreto and Gary Segura were arguing that exit surveys had substantially over-counted Donald Trump’s share of the Hispanic vote. 

But the revision by Teixeira, co-author of the influential 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” is different.

The most salient difference here is that the exit polls underestimated the share of white voters and overestimated the share of voters of color. Our estimate is that 73.7 percent of voters were white (compared to 71 percent in the exits), 8.9 percent were Latino (compared to 11 percent), and 5.5 percent were Asian or other race (compared to 7 percent). However, our figures agree with the exit polls on the percent of black voters (12 percent).

Not only were whites under-counted, according to Teixeira, whose report was published by the liberal Center for American Progress, but whites without college educations were especially under-counted.

The exit polls radically overestimated the share of white college-educated voters and radically underestimated the share of white non-college-educated voters. The exit polls claimed that white college graduates actually outnumbered non-college-educated white voters at the polls in 2016, 37 to 34 percent. Our data indicate a vastly different story: White college graduates were only about 29 percent of voters, while their non-college-educated counterparts far outdistanced them at 45 percent of voters.

Exit polls are never the final word on elections. Teixeira and his colleagues relied on a variety of additional data, including Census information, to reconstruct the electorate. I lack the expertise to confirm or rebut their findings. But if they’re right, the combination of increased non-college white voting, along with the shift in non-college white votes from Democratic to Republican, raises serious questions for near-term Democratic strategy. 

Turnout among both white college-educated and white non-college-educated voters went up. However, turnout increased more among white non-college-educated voters, increasing 3 points from 54 percent to 57 percent, compared to a 2-point increase among white college graduates -- from 78 percent to 80 percent.

Democrats have been faring unusually well among college-educated whites ever since Trump’s victory. The party’s sweep across highly educated Virginia in 2017 legislative elections surpassed virtually all expectations. But if non-college whites are both turning out in greater numbers and voting more Republican, then the Democratic path back to power is more complicated. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016, the party ran into a buzzsaw of white non-college voters that seems to have been exacerbated by declines in black voter turnout and in the Democratic margin among blacks compared with 2012.

“In all three states, our data indicate that the percentage of the voting electorate that was white and non-college-educated was much higher than was suggested by the exit polls,” Teixeira wrote. “In two of the three states — Michigan and Pennsylvania — Clinton would have been able to carry the states if this group’s turnout had remained at 2012 levels.”

What exactly do Democrats, who are currently defining themselves, with Republican help, as the party of (mostly brown) immigrants, do with this analysis, both for the 2018 midterms and beyond?

“Bottom line, he is right,” emailed pollster Paul Maslin, a Wisconsin Democrat who has been arguing that Democrats can’t afford to give up on working-class white voters even as they gain ground among Asians, Hispanics and college-educated suburban whites.

It may be that the suburbs are more productive in terms of winning the House seats needed to win back the majority in 2018, but statewide, and in terms of 2020, Teixeira is dead right. It could be a decade -- or more -- before the millennial/college-educated/minority coalition is strong enough to withstand any further declines among the white working class. And what if there are cracks in that coalition -- Republicans put a Latino or Asian-American on the ticket, or millennials start moving some other way?

Demographic trends remain powerfully in Democrats’ favor, but they are no lock on the future. In effect, the emerging Democratic majority, which seemed to have come to fruition with the rise of Barack Obama, is still emerging -- and always subject to change.

Democrats can appeal to working-class whites on economic grounds. There is evidence that Donald Trump is struggling to hold his support among white women, including non-college-educated white women. But Trump’s appeals to white identity complicate the Democrats’ task. As political scientist John Sides of George Washington University wrote about Trump’s core voters, “Support for Trump depended far less on personal economic anxiety — ‘I’m afraid of losing my job’ — than on a distinctly racialized anxiety: ‘I think minorities are taking jobs from people like me.’”

In an email, Teixeira says Democrats have no choice but to continue appealing for non-college white votes.

My view is that, for the Democrats, now is that time to start building up a strong, simple, salable economic approach that has some chance of appealing across race and class. Remember that Clinton, despite her candidacy having strong positions on racism and immigration, did not succeed all that well with black and Latino turnout and support. So even if we’re talking about base mobilization, it does not necessarily follow that Democratic candidates should emphasize issues that are directly about race and immigration over economic concerns. 

Given the extraordinarily narrow 2016 margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, fewer than 80,000 votes over the three states combined, even a small movement of whites from GOP to Democratic, or even to nonvoting, would yield potentially decisive results in 2020.

At the same time, however, the rising multiracial portion of the electorate is demanding a firm Democratic response to Trump’s appeals to white racial resentment. The immigration debate, which Trump has made explicitly racial, makes straddling the divide especially perilous.

It’s unlikely to get easier. In his State of the Union address, Trump’s appeals to unity were bland and generic. His calls to division, by contrast, were specific, pointed and visceral, casting black athletes protesting police brutality outside the polity and associating Hispanic immigrants, as he so often does, with violent gangs and murder.

The Democratic quandary was on display immediately after Trump’s speech. In his response, Democratic Representative Joseph Kennedy III cited “hatred and supremacy proudly marching in our streets” -- notice the missing adjective? -- before contesting “one false choice after another” presented by Trump’s divisiveness.

Which side would the Democrats choose in Trump’s “zero-sum game"? The coal miner or the Dreamer?

“So here is the answer Democrats offer tonight,” Kennedy said. “We choose both. We fight for both.”

That is no doubt the correct message for the party. That is the correct course for a polyglot nation, where racial polarization is intensifying partisan polarization (and vice versa). But racial demagoguery helped bring Trump the presidency and all the attention in the world. “Both” doesn’t work for him. He’ll do all he can to see it doesn’t work for Democrats either.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE
    Comments