WASHINGTON — Everyone knows that Barack Obama can put together a winning coalition in a national presidential election. He did it twice.
What’s less clear is whether the Democratic Party and its 2016 presidential nominee will be able to build a coalition that resembles the winning one Obama built in 2008 and masterfully re-created four years later.
New data from the Census Bureau help answer that question, shining a light on two of the pillars of the Obama electoral foundation: African-Americans and young people.
Black voters, the census study makes clear, were the story of the 2012 election. For the first time since the bureau started measuring voter participation in 1996, the African-American turnout rate (66.2 per cent of eligible voters) surpassed that of whites (64.1 per cent). Not only that, but 1.7 million more African-Americans voted in 2012 than in 2008 — even as two million fewer whites voted than had four years ago.
The trend over time is even more impressive when it comes to African-American participation, which has increased by 13 per cent since 1996. (White voting rates have risen by three per cent during that time frame. Hispanic voting has increased by 4 percent.)
Obama’s dominance among the increasing share of black voters is well documented. He took 95 per cent of the black vote in 2008 and followed it by winning 93 per cent of African-American voters last November. While those percentages are impressive, they aren’t entirely anomalous. Then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., won 88 per cent of black voters in 2004 and Al Gore took 90 per cent in 2000. Even in the 2010 midterm election, where Republicans were ascendant, 89 per cent of black voters chose Democratic candidates.
It’s hard to imagine any future candidate garnering the sort of excitement, enthusiasm and near-unanimous support in the black community that the first African-American president was able to generate. But the numbers going back several elections suggest that it’s possible for the party — and its next nominee — to come close.
If past is prologue, the bigger problem for Democrats in attempting to rebuild the Obama coalition is the youth vote.
The census study of the 2012 electorate found that just 41 per cent of eligible voters ages 18 to 24 actually voted, well below the overall turnout of 62 per cent of eligible voters. The 41 per cent voting rate also was a significant dip from the 49 per cent of voters ages 18 to 24 who voted in 2008.
The drop-off among youth voters continues a long-term trend of young voters constituting an increasingly smaller share of the electorate. Voters ages 18 to 29, a slightly broader age group used by exit pollsters, made up nearly a quarter of the electorate in 1984. Since then, their share of the electorate has declined steadily. The Census Bureau survey found that voters ages 18 to 29 made up just 15 per cent of the 2012 electorate — lower than exit poll data have shown for the past few elections.
That decline should be of significant concern to Democratic strategists — particularly without Obama on the ballot in future elections. Obama’s success among young voters — and this is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of his victories — was not his ability to turn out that many more young people, but rather his consolidation of their support. Obama won more than six in 10 voters ages 18 to 29 in 2008 and 2012, while Kerry and Gore won 54 per cent in 2004 and 2000 respectively. House Democrats won 55 per cent of 18-to-29-year-olds in 2010.
In 2014 and 2016 then, it’s possible that not only will young voters represent a smaller share of the electorate than they did in 2008 or 2012, but that they also will move less in unison behind Democrats than they did behind Obama.
—The Washington Post