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How Demographics Will Shape The 2016 Election

Republicans contend that the 2016 election will be about Americans’ desire for change after eight years of a Democratic president. Democrats hope the election will tell a different story of change: a continued march toward a more diverse electorate that is ever more hostile to the GOP’s Electoral College fortunes.

We’ve built an interactive tool to help you draw your own conclusions about whether, as is often said, demographics truly are destiny. You can use it to see how changes in turnout and partisanship within five demographic groups would affect the outcome of the 2016 election. Paying homage to the BBC’s iconic tracker of vote swings in British parliamentary elections, we’re calling it the 2016 Swing-O-Matic. Check it out:

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To build a baseline model of the 2016 presidential election, we started with the results of the 2012 election, looking at support for Mitt Romney vs. President Obama by five demographic groups: whites with college degrees, whites without college degrees, African-Americans, Latinos and Asians/others. We then adjusted the size of those demographic groups based on four years of population change.1 From there, you can choose your own adventure: When you adjust each group’s national turnout and party breakdown, the Swing-O-Matic automatically recalculates each state’s election results, along with the outcome of the Electoral College and national popular vote.

A bit of background and three initial takeaways

There’s no question that recent demographic trends have aided Democrats enormously. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of all white voters and won election in a 44-state landslide. In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried 59 percent of all white voters yet lost decisively. What happened? African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and other non-whites — all overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning groups — rose from 12 percent of voters in 1980 to 28 percent in 2012.

Yet analyses that focus only on race and ethnicity ignore an even more rapid demographic shift driving Democratic success: educational attainment. This is why we have split non-Hispanic white voters into two groups.

In both 2008 and 2012, Republicans’ best group by far — of the five we examined — was white voters without college degrees. The GOP carried that group by 14 percentage points in 2008 and a whopping 26 points in 2012. However, these voters — who skew older and more rural — decline 3 percentage points every four years as a share of the overall electorate. In contrast, white degree-holders — who still lean Republican but are much likelier to support Democrats than whites without a degree — rise a percentage point every four years.

In other words, Democrats’ coalition of non-white, young and well-educated voters continues to expand every election, while Republicans’ coalition of white, older and less-educated voters keeps shrinking. It’s no wonder that some pundits have suggested Democrats have an emerging “stranglehold on the Electoral College” because of favorable trends in states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia, right?

It’s true that if every demographic group were to carry its 2012 levels of turnout and party support into 2016, Democrats’ lead in the national popular vote would expand from 3.9 percentage points to 5.1 points based on population trends alone. But, as FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver and others have argued, Democrats’ advantage in the Electoral College is much more tenuous than it’s often portrayed. Here are a few initial takeaways from our interactive (let us know what else you find @FiveThirtyEight):

1) A small shift in the national vote is all it would take for Republicans to break through Democrats’ supposed “Blue Wall.” If all five of our groups were to shift just 3 percentage points toward the GOP in 2016, Republicans would “flip” Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and win 315 electoral votes — almost a mirror image of the 2012 outcome.

2) The power of the Latino vote is frequently overstated. Even if Latino and Asian/other turnout were to plummet to zero, Democrats would still win the Electoral College 283 to 255 — despite losing the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points. That’s because Latino and Asian voters are heavily concentrated in non-competitive states like California, New York and Texas.

3) Sky-high African-American support and engagement is crucial for Democrats. Suppose African-American voters were to return to pre-Obama, 2004 levels of turnout and partisanship (turnout down from 66 percent to 60 percent and support for Democrats down from 93 percent to 88 percent). In that scenario, Democrats would lose Florida, and their overall margin of victory would be cut by more than half in Ohio and Virginia, giving them almost no room for error with other groups.


  1. More specifically, we used exit polls from 2008 and 2012 to estimate each demographic group’s share of the vote and vote for president in the 2012 election. We then adjusted each group’s share of the vote based on recent census data in each state while holding the share that voted for either party constant. We also assigned each group a pre-set turnout level based on the share of its voting-eligible population that turned out to vote in 2012, according to census data on voting and registration. For simplicity’s sake, our interactive allows users to adjust turnout and vote share settings on a national basis, assuming a uniform swing across all states. Such swings are never truly uniform from state to state and from one election to the next, but the interactive should still give you a good sense for how changes in turnout and partisanship affect outcomes.

David Wasserman is the U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report.

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