White Voters Outsized Impact on Presidential Elections

In 2016, white voters made up a record low 71 percent of all voters, according to exit polls.  In critical swing states such as Florida, Georgia and Nevada, white voters made up even smaller majorities of their states electorates.  If not for GOP strength among white voters they would have lost all these states.

But, of course, the GOP runs strongly among white voters.  Though, how strong depends on the region.  As I have explained before, GOP strength among white voters can largely be attributed to their outsized advantages among Southern whites.  But, their strength among Midwestern and Northeastern whites is much, much smaller.

This has consequences.  The national electorate is important but we do not have one national election for President.  We have 51 (including DC) individual elections to elect the President.  This means the national electorate is shaped by turnout patterns in the states.

Now, due to the Electoral College, self-sorting and demographics there are few competitive states.  While 2016 brought a few more states onto the map then 2012 (Georgia, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Maine) the vast majority of states safely fell in the Democratic or Republican camp.

This increases the impact of a voter’s vote if you happen to live in a swing state or particular region.  And one region in particular has significant number of swing states and white voters; the Rust Belt.

If one looks at the electorate in this region (includes Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) it differs significantly from the national electorate.   Here, white voters made up a significant majority of the electorate as evidenced by the table below.

 State Percent of Electorate-White Percent of Electorate Non-White State Electorate Difference National Electorate Difference
Indiana  83 percent  17 percent  +66 percent +11 percent
Iowa  90 percent  10 percent  +80 percent +19 percent
Michigan  75 percent  25 percent  +50 percent +4 percent
Minnesota  87 percent 13 percent +74 percent +16 percent
Ohio  80 percent 20 percent +60 percent +9 percent
Pennsylvania  81 percent  19 percent +62 percent +10 percent
Wisconsin  86 percent  14 percent  +72 percent +15 percent

In every state in the region the share of the white electorate exceeded their share among the national electorate by double-digits except for Ohio and Michigan.  Additionally, if the exit polls are accurate, Donald Trump vastly out-performed Mitt Romney among these voters.  But, it is not just the Midwest where white voters were a larger share of the electorate than nationally.  Taking a look at the composition of other swing state’s electorates (see table below) show that in several other states, white voters played an out sized role in the outcome.

State Percent of Electorate-White Percent of Electorate Non-White State Electorate Difference National Electorate Difference
Arizona 75 percent 25 percent +50 percent +4 percent
Colorado 78 percent 22 percent +56 percent +6 percent
Florida 62 percent 38 percent +24 percent -9 percent
Georgia 60 percent 40 percent +20 percent -11 percent
Maine 93 percent  7 percent  +86 percent  +22 percent
Missouri 79 percent  21 percent  +58 percent  +8 percent
Nevada  62 percent  38 percent  +24 percent  -9 percent
New Hampshire  92 percent  8 percent  +84 percent  +21 percent
New Mexico  49 percent  51 percent  -2 percent  -22 percent

Now, the share of the white vote does not necessarily equate to victory for one side or the other.  Republicans won a state as diverse as Florida while Democrats carried a state as white as New Hampshire.  But if we take the average of these states it is clear that these swing states are much whiter than the nation.  The out sized power of white voters has impacts on our elections.  Presidential nominees tailor their electoral messages to appeal to these states voters and once elected their policies also reflect the preferences of these states’s voters.Considering the number of white voters in these states it could lead to policies that reflect the preferences of largely rural and suburban voters and not necessarily urban voters.  At a more practical level, this could lead to policies that favor charter over urban schools, freeways vs. downtown roads, etc.

Additionally, these states make up a sizable chunk of the Electoral College (see table below).  This further gives white voters an ability to greatly influence the Presidential election.

State Trump Won Clinton Won Electoral College Votes
Arizona X  11
Colorado X  9
Florida X  29
Georgia X  16
Maine X (1) X (3)  4
Missouri X  10
Nevada X  6
New Hampshire X  4
New Mexico X  5
North Carolina X  15
Virginia X  13
Wisconsin X  10
Indiana X  11
Iowa X  6
Michigan X  16
Minnesota X  10
Ohio X  16
Pennsylvania X  20
Total 12 (161)  7 (50)  211

This cycle, the power of white voters was put to the test.  Whereas no candidate in history attempted to appeal to white voters beyond swing states, Hillary Clinton did.  The result was not only did Clinton lose the election but she was crushed in the Electoral College even while winning the popular vote by 2.85 million voters.  Among the states many analysts considered to be competitive this cycle Clinton won a mere 7 for a combined 50 Electoral Votes.  Trump finished much stronger and with 111 more Electoral College Votes than Clinton from these states.

The primary problem with such an electoral strategy is that while many swing states outside the Midwest are diversifying they are not diversifying at a significant enough pace to flip them blue.  Meanwhile, whites in the Midwest have become more conservative and Republican.

This partly explains why Clinton’s plan to double down on the “Obama Coalition” was so baffling.  Obama’s campaign was certainly liberal but it also had a populist twinge.  For example, at the time it might have seemed perplexing that Obama doubled down on the unpopular auto bailout and criticized Romney for opposing it.  But, it ended up helping Obama win many, many white voters in the Midwest. Combined with the Clinton campaign’s other tactical blunders her overarching campaign strategy was enough to sink her in the Electoral College and showcase the power white voters continue to have in the Presidential election.

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