Minority report: 3 big trends in the Census Bureau's voting data

New census report shows rising numbers of minority voters, turning out at higher rates, just as the white vote is declining. For Republicans, demographics may be destiny, unless the GOP finds ways to adapt.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Citizenship advocates in the audience listen as the Senate Judiciary Committee meets Thursday to examine proposed changes to immigration reform legislation that aims to put some of the 11 million immigrants in the US illegally on a path to citizenship. A new Census Bureau report finds that, if current trends persist, the US will become a majority-minority nation in three decades.

If you had any doubts, it’s now official: When it comes to minorities, the GOP is not rocking the vote. That’s according to new data from the US Census Bureau, released Wednesday, that shows that record levels of black voters, as well rising numbers of minority voters, are turning out at the polls just as the white vote is declining. Unless Republicans can change their batting average with minorities, the data suggest they could strike out of office in future elections by dint of sheer demographics.

As Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington, earlier told the Monitor, “the GOP [is] on the wrong side of history, demographically speaking.”

But fear not, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, all is not lost for the Grand Old Party. While the data show overwhelming support for President Obama among black and other minority voters in 2012, opportunities still exist for Republicans in two major voting cohorts, ones that will swell in coming years, to boot: the Hispanic and youth vote.

Here are three important lessons we learned about voting trends:

Black voters turned out in record numbers

Talk about rocking the vote. For the first time since 1968, when the Census Bureau began tracking voting and race, black voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout: 66.2 percent versus 64.1 percent. And according to CNN exit polls, the vast majority of black voters – some 93 percent – voted for Mr. Obama.

That’s a significant turnaround: As recently as 1996, blacks had turnout rates 8 percentage points lower than whites. Today, not only are black voter turnout rates rising, but white turnout rates are falling. About 2 million fewer whites voted in 2012 compared with 2008, contributing to a two percentage point decrease in turnout rates.

For a voting cohort that pollsters expected wouldn’t turn out – due to voter ID laws, high unemployment among blacks, and low rates of registration and access to polling stations – blacks proved they can defy expectations. 

We see two major reasons behind the surging turnout rates: the “Obama effect” and, well, defiance. Just as in 2008, black voters turned out to reelect Obama, the nation’s first black president and an exceptionally strong candidate for motivating minority voters.

As for defiance, here’s our theory: Some Republican legislators’ efforts to increase voter ID requirements and make registration more difficult backfired, as blacks, urged on by civil rights groups, turned out in large numbers to demonstrate their right to vote.

As Marvin Randolph, the NAACP's senior vice president for campaigns, told The New York Times, “We are accustomed to people trying to deny us things, and I think sometimes you wake the sleeping giant, and that’s what happened here.” 

Minorities make up a bigger share of voters – and that spells trouble for Republicans

If Hillary Rodham Clinton runs in 2016, she’ll face a vastly different electorate than Bill did in 1996. Consider this: In 1996, about 1 in 6 voters was a racial or ethnic minority, either black, Asian, or Hispanic. In 2012, 1 in 4 voters was a minority – and that share is only expected to rise.

By and large, people of color have been voting Democratic. According to the Census figures, 80 percent of nonwhites voted for Obama in November. And according to CNN exit polls, 93 percent of blacks, 71 percent of Hispanics, and 73 percent of Asians supported Obama over GOP contender Mitt Romney in 2012.

In other words, the GOP’s minority problem is no joke.

If current trends persist (last year, births of nonwhites outnumbered births of whites in America for the first time in history), the US will become a majority-minority nation in three decades.

As Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, wrote in a March 2010 paper, “The tectonic plates of American politics are shifting.”

And the Republican Party is struggling not to fall through the cracks.

Hispanic and youth turnout is flat – and therein lies an opportunity for Republicans

If blacks were 2012’s success story, Hispanics were its surprise disappointment. Despite surging population growth, Hispanic voters turned out at relatively low levels. Though they swelled from 6.1 percent of the voting electorate in 1996 to 10.8 percent in 2012, 48 percent – or less than half – of eligible Hispanics voted in 2012. That’s down two percentage points from 2008, making their share of the vote 8.4 percent.

The youth vote was also down from levels in 2004 and 2008: Some 41 percent of voters age 18 to 24 voted last November, down 7 percentage points from 2008. (Compare that with 71.9 percent turnout among seniors, the election’s real stars.)

There are a few factors behind the low turnout. In the case of Hispanics, we see high numbers of underage and ineligible individuals. More than one-third of Latinos (almost 35 percent) are younger than the voting age of 18, and many are not yet US citizens and therefore ineligible to vote (nearly two-thirds of legal Mexican immigrants are not US citizens).

Still, even Hispanics – and youths – eligible to vote did not. Which brings us to another reason behind the low turnout for both groups: sagging enthusiasm. That is, it’s likely many Hispanic and young voters simply weren’t compelled enough by the candidates to turn out.

Therein lies a golden opportunity: These groups are still up for grabs. Sure, they left votes on the table, but Hispanic and young voters make up a huge bloc of potential voters for both political parties – especially Republicans, the current underdog in minority appeal – in coming elections.

Considering their massive growth rates and looming policy proposals – Millennials represent a tantalizing bulge in the population and nearly 11 million Hispanics may become eligible for US citizenship in coming years, if a proposed immigration bill in the Senate passes – both parties would do well to court the lucrative Millennial and Hispanic vote.

We don’t know about you, but we’re foreseeing many more Spanish-speaking, Rihanna-listening, Red-Bull-chugging candidates in our political future.

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