The minority vote, the blue wall, and the mandate: the key figures that will determine the outcome of the presidential race
After a campaign of unprecedented expense and duration, the third presidential contest in the past four to divide America almost exactly in half is now almost in the hands of the voters. With polls showing President Obama holding a small lead over Mitt Romney in key battleground states, but locked in a virtual dead-heat nationally, here's a look at the factors that could decide who gets the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the race for the White House on Nov. 6.
1. What is the minority share of the vote?
Key number: 26% or more
Obama is likely to win about twice as large a proportion of the non-white as the white vote. How many whites and non-whites vote is therefore the single most important question in the election, both nationally and in the key swing states.
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Since 1992 the non-white share of the vote has grown steadily at about three percentage points with every election, from 12 percent when Bill Clinton was first elected, to 26 percent for Barack Obama's election in 2008. If the trend has continued this year, it will make Obama's path to reelection much easier. But if minority turnout lags, or turnout among older conservative whites soars -- as it did in the 2010 mid-term election--it will make the math much more favorable for Romney. Youth turnout is critical here too, because about 40 percent of the Millennial Generation are non-white, compared to only about half that among seniors.
Obama's team projects a 27 percent or 28 percent minority share of the vote; Romney's advisers expect it to remain stagnant at 26 percent, or perhaps even decline. Such small shifts could have huge implications for battleground states with rapidly growing minority populations, including Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Florida and maybe North Carolina. The challenge for Romney is that even though surveys show enthusiasm about voting lagging among Hispanics (who are the fastest-growing minority group), Census Bureau data show that minorities now comprise 29 percent of all those eligible to vote. So, even if the percentage of eligible minority voters who turn out to vote is lower than in 2008, their share of the total electorate could still increase.
2. Can Obama hit the 80/40 mark?
Key numbers: 80 percent of 26 percent + 40 percent of 74 percent
Obama's formula for success can be succinctly expressed. If minorities constitute at least 26 percent of the vote (as they did last time), and he wins at least 80 percent of their cumulative votes (as he did last time), he can win a national majority with support from only about 40 percent of whites. But there's no guarantee he can reach even that modest number. Obama last time won 43 percent of whites, but Democrats captured only 37 percent of them in the 2010 Congressional elections, according to exit polls at the time. Obama had 39 percent among whites in two polls released on November 4. That would probably lift him just over the 40 percent marker when undecideds are allocated -- but with achingly little margin for error.
Other factors could give Obama more breathing room. The share of whites he needs would decline to just above 38 percent if minorities rise to 27 percent of the vote and he wins 82 percent of them, both of which seem possible. All of this means that Romney could run as well among white voters as any Republican challenger ever -- and still lose. Whatever happens, the election is likely to send Republicans an irrefutable message about the long-term demographic implausibility of building their coalition almost entirely from white voters in a country that is now nearly 40 percent non-white.
3. Can Obama hold his gains among working-class whites in the Rustbelt?
Key number: 10 percentage points
As I've written on Quartz before, the central paradox in this election is that while Obama is facing a potentially historic repudiation among working-class white voters overall, those same voters in a few Midwestern states could be the ones who get him re-elected.
Nationally, the November 4 Pew Research poll, like many others, showed Obama winning just 33 percent of white men without a college education and only 38 percent of non-college white women, the so-called "waitress moms". That would be the weakest performance for any Democratic nominee among those voters since Walter Mondale was buried in the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1984. Yet in the key Midwestern battlegrounds of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio, Obama is running about 10 percentage points better among the blue-collar white men and as much as 18 percentage points better among the waitress moms. (The same pattern is present, to a lesser extent, in Michigan, which Romney had hoped to bring into play.)