It could be said that the 2016 presidential election is once again a question of economics versus demographics. On one hand, wage stagnation and a narrow economic recovery have contributed to the anxiety that fueled Donald Trump’s rise. But if he wants to beat Hillary Clinton, he’ll need to swim against a powerful demographic tide that continues to aid Democrats in the race for 270 electoral votes.
On June 23, the Census Bureau unveiled its latest population estimates for states and counties by age, sex, race and Hispanic origin. According to the data, the non-Hispanic white share of the nation’s voting age population fell from 66.6 percent to 64.6 percent over the past four years.
Technically, this data covers the period from July 1, 2011, to July 1, 2015, but that’s as good a metric as we have for gauging the changing complexion of the electorate between the 2012 and 2016 elections. (It’s also important to note that these estimates include non-citizens, who are ineligible to vote. But according to separate Census data, the non-Hispanic white share of voting-age citizens fell from 71.1 percent to 69.9 percent from 2012 to 2014, a two-year period – closely tracking the other estimates).
In 2012, President Obama carried the national popular vote by 3.9 percentage points. The exact white share of the 2012 electorate is still in dispute, but 2012’s exit polls pointed toward Obama carrying 81 percent of non-whites and 39 percent of whites. Hypothetically, if 2012 rates of turnout and support by group were to remain constant, Democrats’ popular vote advantage would swell to 5.1 percentage points in 2016 thanks to demographic shifts alone.
To give you an idea of that shift’s magnitude, here are some options for what Trump would need to happen in order to merely offset it: a) a 1 percentage point increase in the GOP share of the vote among non-Hispanic whites versus 2012; b) a 3 point increase of non-Hispanic white turnout, from 64 percent in 2012 to 67 percent in 2016; or c) a 3 point decline in non-white turnout from 56 percent in 2012 to 53 percent in 2016.
Of particular concern to Republicans should be the rapid declines in the non-Hispanic white share of the voting age population in two battleground states: Florida and Nevada. Between 2011 and 2015, Nevada’s non-Hispanic white voting age population fell from 58.2 percent to 54.9 percent, the biggest drop in the nation. Florida’s fell from 60.7 percent to 58.4 percent. In both states, the Hispanic share of the voting age population increased by about 1.5 percentage points.
Florida’s non-white surge has been most pronounced in the central part of the state. In Osceola County, a heavily Puerto Rican suburb of Orlando, the white share fell 4 percentage points between 2011 and 2015, and the Hispanic share increased 4 percentage points — and new Puerto Rican arrivals there are eligible to vote by virtue of their citizenship. Nevada’s surge has been most evident in Clark County, home to Las Vegas and its suburbs.
There was only one electoral prize where the non-Hispanic white share of the voting age population went up: the District of Columbia, where Obama took a pretty robust 91 percent of the vote in 2012.
Everywhere else, Republicans will likely need to win or turn out a higher percentage of whites, their best group, to make up for their decline as a share of the electorate. But Democrats and the Clinton campaign can’t take this favorable trend line for granted: Over the next four months, newly eligible non-whites will need to be registered and engaged for their potential impact to be realized. Trump may be the motivation these would-be voters need.