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‘Missing’ White Voters Might Help Trump, But Less So Where He Needs It

A common refrain is that demographics will ultimately doom Donald Trump’s candidacy. His most reliable supporters have been whites without college degrees — a group that made up 65 percent of voters in 1980 but is on pace to make up just 33 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, nonwhite voters, with whom Trump is extremely unpopular, rose from 12 percent of the electorate in 1980 to 28 percent in 2012.

However, there was one year during that period when the white share of the electorate ticked up 2 percentage points: 1992. What happened in 1992? It was the last time an ideology-defying, billionaire outsider stirred up a nationwide frenzy. For Democrats, Ross Perot is an eerie precedent.

The youngest voters in 2016 weren’t yet born when Perot appeared on the ballot, but the 1992 white uptick was probably attributable to the Texas tycoon’s 19 percent showing. Like Trump, Perot railed against NAFTA, promised to restore America’s greatness on the world stage and used unconventional gimmicks to draw attention to himself. And, roughly 94 percent of Perot’s voters were white. In the five elections since, white turnout has never been so high.

According to census data, 70 percent of eligible non-Hispanic whites voted in 1992, but just 64 percent voted in 2012 (in fact, 2012 was the first time African-Americans voted at a higher rate than whites). Why the decline? It’s likely that neither the professorial President Obama nor the patrician Mitt Romney clicked with many whites who had found a home with Perot or Bill Clinton two decades prior, and millions of these disaffected voters simply stayed home.

NON-HISPANIC WHITE TURNOUT
COUNTIES BY PEROT VOTE SHARE 1992 2012 DIFFERENCE
<10% 46.9% 48.0% +1.1
10-15% 51.4 51.7 +0.3
15-20% 53.7 52.3 -1.4
20-25% 58.6 54.1 -4.5
25-30% 59.6 54.5 -5.1
>30% 63.3 53.7 -9.6
Ross Perot’s 1992 voters have gone missing

Sources: Cook Political Report, U.S. Census BUREAU

After the 2012 elections, RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende persuasively linked these “missing” white voters to Perot’s coalition. And in January, he laid out a compelling case for why they were much more likely to fit the profile of a secular, blue-collar Trump supporter than a conservative, evangelical Ted Cruz sympathizer. Now the question is: Can Trump reawaken enough of them to beat Hillary Clinton in a general election?

To take a crack at this question, I ran a simulation of what might happen if non-Hispanic white turnout in each state were to return to 1992 levels, keeping all other groups’ turnout constant at 2012 levels.

The good news for Trump is that nationally, there’s plenty of room for white turnout to improve. If non-Hispanic whites had turned out at the same rate in 2012 that they did in 1992, there would have been 8.8 million additional white voters — far more than Obama’s 5 million-vote margin of victory. But before Democrats panic, here’s the catch, and it’s a doozy for Trump: These “missing” white voters disproportionately live in states that won’t matter in a close presidential race.

wasserman-whites-1

Between 1992 and 2012, white turnout dropped from 71 percent to 63 percent in the 38 non-Electoral College battleground states.1 There were huge double-digit declines in relatively Perot-friendly places such as Alaska, upstate New York and Utah. But in the 12 key battleground states, white turnout dropped more modestly, from 69 percent to 66 percent. There was virtually no white drop-off in Pennsylvania, and white turnout increased in New Hampshire and Virginia.

There were only three states where the estimated number of “missing” white voters exceeded Obama’s margin of victory in 2012: Florida, Nevada and Ohio. In the case of Florida, Trump would need to win only 58 percent of “missing” whites to erase Obama’s 2012 margin; in Ohio he would need 75 percent, and in Nevada he would need 89 percent. Everywhere else, Trump would likely need 2016 white turnout to outpace historic 1992 levels to succeed.

But there are two other huge reasons why focusing exclusively on “missing” white voters fails to capture the magnitude Trump’s challenge in 2016.

First, the nonwhite share of eligible voters has grown since 2012, forcing Trump to activate even more white voters just to keep up. The nonwhite share of the citizen voting age population grew from 29 percent in 2012 to 30 percent in 2014. At that rate, it’s on pace to be 31 percent in 2016. Although African-American turnout could decline without Obama on the ballot, traditionally weak Latino turnout could surge thanks to antipathy towards Trump. Just 48 percent of eligible Latinos cast ballots in 2012, and according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Latinos eligible to vote will increase from 23.3 million in 2012 to 27.3 million in 2016.

Second, there is no guarantee Trump will perform as well as past Republican nominees among existing white voters. In particular, Trump seems to be underperforming with white college-educated voters, who already turn out at extremely high levels. In 2012, Romney carried this group 56 percent to 42 percent. But in the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, whites with a college degree favored Trump over Clinton by just 46 percent to 45 percent. A May NBC/Wall Street Journal polling breakdown of our April quadrants analysis echoed these findings: In Republican-leaning counties with high white socioeconomic status, Romney beat Obama 56 percent to 38 percent but Trump leads Clinton by just 47 percent to 44 percent.

Bottom line: “Missing” Perot voters exist, and they could be a part of Trump’s blueprint for victory. But in most battleground states, Trump would need to activate far more working-class whites than Perot did to win. That’s not impossible, but our handy Swing-O-Matic suggests Trump would require truly historic levels of support and turnout among working-class whites — in addition to avoiding erosion with other groups — to be within range of winning.

CORRECTION (June 2, 10:37 a.m.): A previous version of the map in this article incorrectly identified a “battleground” state. Colorado, not Wyoming, was a battleground state in 2012.

Footnotes

  1. I consider “non-battlegrounds” to be states Obama carried by more than 10 percentage points or Romney carried by more than 5 percentage points in 2012

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

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