Read: The Democrats are blowing this election
About 6 million Obama voters from 2012 chose Trump in 2016, and nearly all of these voters were white. Obama-to-Trump voters are known as the prototypical swing voters of the era—when they should be known as the prototypical white swing voters of the era. Another 4.4 million Obama voters did not vote in 2016, and an additional 2.3 million (who were more likely younger) supported third-party candidates, amounting to 6.7 million—more than the number of Obama-to-Trump voters, who received the bulk of the post-election attention.
The swing was mainly black people and young people. Rates of voting among youngsters increased from 2012 to 2016 for all racial and ethnic groups, except young black voters, whose voting rate declined 5 percent. Registered voters of color made up 25 percent of all voters who cast a ballot during the 2016 election, but 42 percent of those who didn’t cast a ballot. Among the young registered voters who remained home, 30 percent were white, 43 percent were Latino, and 46 percent were black.
The impact of the black swing voter is shown most clearly in three states Clinton lost by a combined 80,000 votes: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In Michigan, more than 75,000 Obama voters in Detroit alone did not vote in 2016. In Wisconsin, Clinton received 230,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012. Much of the difference came from Milwaukee, which had the lowest voting rate in 16 years. In Philadelphia, one post-election study found that the greater the percentage of black people at a precinct, the lower its voting rate, leading to Clinton losing an estimated 35,000 votes.
The surge of white voters without college degrees for Trump was seen by some as the deciding factor in Trump’s election. Why can’t the white swing voter and the other swing voter both be deciding factors? For example, the support of white non-college-educated voters for Democrats declined 5 percent between Obama and Clinton. What was the percentage decline in support between Obama and Clinton among black voters? Five percent. Whereas 12 percent of white Obama voters supported Trump, 11 percent of black Obama voters didn’t vote.
Read: Can the Democratic Party retain its hold on black voters?
With these figures in mind, it is easy to point to turnout as the Democrats’ salvation for winning back the White House in 2020. But turnout advocacy, which supposes Democrats have the advantage with higher turnout, is out of date in Trump’s America. Democrats should be wary of the second major group of white swing voters: white Americans swinging between not voting and voting Republican. Democrats should be wary of white nonvoters.
Trump now dominates non-college-educated whites, who are overrepresented among white people who do not regularly vote. Higher voting rates among all Americans in the 2020 election are likely to favor Trump Republicans in the midwestern swing states, where an outsize number of non-college-educated whites reside. Higher turnout of all Americans could result in Democrats winning the popular vote by a greater margin than in 2016 and still losing the Electoral College.