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‘Missing’ White Voters Could Elect Trump. But First They Need To Register.

Here’s a scary stat for Democrats: In 2012, President Obama won re-election by almost 5 million votes, but about 47 million eligible white voters without a college degree — including 24 million men — didn’t bother to vote. In 2016, these nonvoters are part of the demographic that is most strongly in favor of Donald Trump.

If Trump rouses even a fraction of these notoriously disaffected Americans — like this grease-smudged, 61-year-old first-time voter in western Pennsylvania — he could surge to victory. There’s just one catch: If we’re on the cusp of a blue-collar Great Awakening, it’s not yet showing up in the registration data.

Tuesday was National Voter Registration Day, as good a time as any to pick apart the potential 2016 electorate. The Census estimates that in 2012 there were 215 million voting-age citizens, of whom 153 million were registered to vote (roughly 129 million votes were ultimately cast that year). Just under 153 million of the eligible citizens were non-Hispanic whites, of whom 112 million were registered and 98 million voted.1

However, there was almost certainly an enormous turnout gap between whites with and without a college degree. While the Census does break down its turnout data by educational attainment, it doesn’t subdivide that information by race. However, it does estimate that 77 percent of all eligible voters with at least a bachelor’s degree voted in 2012, compared to 55 percent of eligible voters without a bachelor’s degree. Among men without a bachelor’s degree, just 53 percent voted.

Using a modeling technique incorporating Census data and actual reported votes,2 I’ve estimated that the vast majority of these non-college nonvoters — 47.1 million — were white. These white no-shows — whom Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics has written extensively about — represent an enormous opportunity for Trump.

This demographic cohort, which last showed up in large numbers when Bill Clinton and Ross Perot first ran in 1992 but which apparently didn’t feel any affinity for Obama or Mitt Romney in 2012, dwarfs the pool of 11.5 million Latino nonvoters Hillary Clinton hopes to motivate to the polls. In Florida, where Obama won by about 74,000 votes four years ago, there were 2.5 million eligible non-college-graduate whites who failed to vote, compared to just 725,000 eligible Latinos who skipped the election.

If Trump were able to activate merely one of every eight of these “missing whites” to vote for him, he would wipe out Obama’s 2012 margins in three states — Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — and win both the Electoral College and the popular vote. If he were able to activate one of every five, he could add Virginia, Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire:

Florida +74k 2,517k 2.9%
Ohio +166 2,225 7.5
Pennsylvania +310 2,637 11.8
Virginia +149 963 15.6
Nevada +68 394 17.2
Iowa +92 505 18.2
New Hampshire +40 213 18.5
United States +4,982 47,086 10.5
The ‘missing’ white voters in 2012

*Did not graduate from college

Source: Census Bureau / State election offices

But back to the catch: Although Trump may be converting plenty of existing voters to his side, there’s really very little evidence that previous nonvoters are coming out of the woodwork in large numbers for him.

According to the Census, 40.2 million eligible whites weren’t registered to vote at all in 2012. That’s much larger than the 14.7 million whites who were registered but didn’t turn out. Therefore, if Trump were truly inspiring an uprising of “missing” whites, we should expect a surge (or at least an uptick) in new registrations in blue-collar white and GOP-leaning places — think a mirror image of the Obama registration boom of 2008.

But nothing like that has materialized. In the 15 months since Trump announced his run, net registration gains in heavily white, rural and GOP-leaning counties have been unremarkable.

Florida +4.7% +4.4%
North Carolina +5.4 +6.8
Pennsylvania +4.9 +6.3
Virginia +2.9 +4.8
Nonvoters in Trump’s best areas aren’t registering in droves

Data for Florida and Virginia covers May 2015 through August 2016. North Carolina and Pennsylvania data covers June 2015 through last week. Well-educated/diverse counties are counties where non-whites and college-educated whites combine to make up more than 50 percent of eligible voters

Source: state election websites

Take the critical battleground of North Carolina, for example. Between June 2015 and today, total registrations have increased 5.4 percent in the 70 counties where whites without a college degree make up a majority of eligible voters (Romney carried those counties with 62 percent). But in the 30 other less white, better-educated counties, registrations have increased 6.8 percent over the same period (Obama carried those with 59 percent of the vote).

The story is the same in Pennsylvania. Since May 2015, registrations have increased 4.9 percent in the 63 counties where a majority of potential voters are non-college-educated white people. But in the other four counties (Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery and Chester), registrations have risen 6.3 percent. Those four more-cosmopolitan counties combined for an Obama margin of 611,724 votes in 2012, nearly twice his statewide margin of victory.

In Florida, registration growth has been roughly even across the map: It’s up 4.7 percent in the 53 counties where a majority of voters are non-college-educated whites (58 percent Romney) since June 2015, versus 4.4 percent in the other 14 counties that are more diverse or well-educated (58 percent Obama). But Florida also tracks registration by race, and non-whites have accounted for 59 percent of the state’s net registration growth since November 2014.

In Virginia, the disparity is even greater. Between June 2015 and the end of August, net registrations have increased just 2.9 percent in the 85 white, non-college-graduate majority localities (58 percent Romney), versus 4.8 percent in the 48 other localities (57 percent Obama).

I could keep going, but you get the picture.

So what’s going on? It could be that Trump is motivating slightly more new voters against him than for him. Or, perhaps more likely, it could be that white working class voters are out there to be activated, but Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee have waited until too late to build the analytics and ground infrastructure necessary to identify and register them. That’s where Clinton and the Democrats have excelled.

The absence of a discernible pro-Trump registration spike in key states doesn’t make it impossible that there will be a white, blue-collar “Trump surge” on Election Day. But it means he’d need to build that surge of voters out of the smaller pool of 14.7 million white nonvoters who are already registered, rather than realizing his full potential with the much larger pool of 47.1 million “missing” working-class whites.


  1. Throughout this article, I use “eligible” to mean people of voting age who are U.S. citizens. Some citizens of voting age are ineligible to vote, including felons.

  2. Within each state, I began by taking reported votes from official tallies and breaking them down along the lines of the Census estimates of turnout by race and education. I then applied separate Census data on educational attainment within each racial group to estimate white college graduates’ and white non-college-graduates’ shares of the actual and eligible electorates in 2012.

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