Politics Counts: The Turnout Questions

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The divided nature of the U.S. has been a constant theme in the 2012 presidential campaign with the discussion of gaps, divides and splits in the electorate driving much of the coverage.

By now political watchers can recite the demographic advantages of each candidate by rote. President Obama holds a massive lead among African Americans and Hispanics – plus-87 percentage points and plus-46 points respectively in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney holds the upper hand with white voters (plus-17 points) and huge edge with white evangelicals (plus-68 points).

But as Tuesday approaches, the bigger issue is who will actually shows up on Election Day. The two campaigns and their surrogates have different beliefs of who that will be, of course, with the Obama team expecting a big diverse electorate and the Romney campaign expecting a smaller, and whiter group. Who’s right? The recent past may offer some clues.

Mr. Romney has the biggest voter bloc supporting him, if white Americans can be called a bloc, but it has been getting smaller in recent elections – shrinking from 81% of the electorate in 2000 to 74% in 2008. That’s a pretty steep drop. But one of his most loyal blocs of support, white evangelicals and born-again Christians, grew in 2008 to 26% of the electorate, up from 23% in 2004.

For Mr. Obama, meanwhile, growth is on his side – or rather it has been on the side of the Democrats in the past two cycles. Two of Mr. Obama’s biggest blocs of support have been growing as share of the electorate since 2000. African Americans made up 13% of the electorate in 2008, up from 10% in 2000. And Hispanics made up 9 % of the 2008 electorate, climbing from 7% in 2000.

What does that tell us about this Election Day? A few things.

First, while Mr. Romney can claim a big lead among the biggest “bloc” of the electorate, white voters, he probably doesn’t have a lot of room to boost white turnout by itself. That 2008 number for the white electorate, 74%, is a little above the Census figure for whites in the general population in 2010, 72.4%.

In other words, barring a major increase in turnout overall, any increase in the turnout among whites voters as a percentage of total voters will come from a decline in turnout from other ethnic groups, like African Americans. That’s possible, of course, but there are few reasons why it might not happen.

The African-American turnout number in 2008 (13%) was really more-or-less in line with the general population number according to the 2010 Census (12.6%). So while African-American turnout in 2008 was up from 2004 (11%), it was not outsize when compared to the population as whole. And helping re-elect the first African-American president in history may be a strong motivator again in 2012. For the rest of this Politics Counts column, please visit the Wall Street Journal's website.