Breaking News: More White Voters Than Previously Thought

Thursday, June 16th, 2016 @ 2:55PM

Gary D. Halbert

Between the Lines

As reported last week in the NEW YORK TIMES, new analysis by Nate Cohn of The Upshot showed that millions more white, older, working-class voters went to the polls in 2012 than was previously found by exit polls on Election Day. This raises the prospect that Donald Trump has a significantly larger pool of potential voters than previously believed.

Whether you support Trump or Hillary, this is information that you definitely need to know. I’ll summarize these new findings for you below and offer some thoughts on how they may affect the presidential election in November.


When you hear about the demographic makeup (race, gender, age, etc.) of the American electorate, almost all of the data comes from exit polls. The latest exit polls came from surveys conducted with tens of thousands of voters at precincts across the country on Election Day in 2012, along with a supplemental telephone survey with early voters.

The exit polls are excellent surveys, but like any survey, they’re imperfect. The problem is that most political analysts treat exit polls as if they are a precise breakdown of the demographics of the electorate. Not so says Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who researches voter turnout. He and others say exit polls tell us very little about the demographic profile of the electorate.

That’s why this latest analysis from The Upshot is so important. Using broader and more complete data sources, the report found that the 2012 electorate was older, whiter and less-educated than previously believed.

The first and longest-standing source of alternative voter data is the Current Population Survey (CPS). Conducted by the US Census Bureau, the CPS is the same monthly survey that gives us the unemployment report each month. After presidential elections, the CPS includes questions about whether people voted.

A second source is the so-called Voter File: a compilation of local records on every American who has registered to vote, including address, age and whether the person voted in a given election. Researchers have found that the Voter File data is unbiased and more accurate than public voting records. The Voter File data used for the analysis below comes from Catalist, a well-known Democratic database firm.

An Older, Whiter, Less-Educated Electorate.


These sources show a 2012 electorate that was more white, older and less-educated than the exit polls indicated. Here are the numbers that matter:

The exit polls suggested that 23% of voters in 2012 were white, over age 45 and without a college degree. Catalist puts this group at 29%, and the Census Bureau at 30%, implying about 10 million more of such voters than the 23% figure represents.

Donald Trump’s primary audience is white, over age 45 and without a college degree. If their numbers are indeed 10 million more than previously believed, his chances of winning the White House in November just got a lot better.

One of the biggest reasons Donald Trump has been considered to be a long shot to win the presidency is the diversity of the country and his poor support among minorities.

As Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program recently put it, “There are not enough white voters in America for Donald Trump to win while getting routed among minorities.”

Yet the new evidence shown above suggests there is a path for Mr. Trump to win without gains among non-white (minority) voters. This somewhat larger path may help explain why Trump has been competitive in early general election surveys with Hillary Clinton.

The new data show there’s more room for Trump to make gains among white working-class voters than many assumed — enough to possibly win without making gains among minorities or college-educated white voters.

But Mr. Trump’s narrow path could close if he loses ground among well-educated voters and alienates even more non-white voters between now and Election Day. Trump’s ratings among these groups remain poor, and he continues to draw fresh criticism, most recently for saying the judge overseeing the lawsuit against Trump University is biased because of his Mexican heritage.

In summary, the analysis above concludes that there are likely 10 million or so more white, older and less-educated voters out there than previously believed. That should be good news for Donald Trump, but it doesn’t mean he won’t blow this new potential advantage with more offensive gaffes.

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