The Most Valuable Voters of 2016

The election may come down to turning out minority voters and wooing seniors in the battleground states.

Pennsylvania loved Hillary in 2008.  (National Journal)

Where will demographic change most transform the landscape for the 2016 presidential race?

Over the past two weeks, Next America has documented the evolving demography of the swing states at the tipping point of American politics, using data exclusively provided by the States of Change: Demographics and Democracy Project. That's a joint initiative of the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for American Progress in collaboration with demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution. (For more on the project, the data sources used, and the basis of its projections, click here.) We have catalogued how social and political change is shifting the balance in presidential elections across the Southeast, the Southwest, the Rust Belt, and the "reach" states that rapid demographic change could eventually bring into play.

In the charts below, we summarize the two demographic trends that may most affect the political landscape in the 11 states that both parties now treat as decisive swing contests. As the charts show, all of these states are simultaneously growing more racially diverse and older. But these twin transformations are operating at very different rates in the states likely to decide the next presidential election. While diversity is the key dynamic in the swing states across the Sun Belt, aging is the defining characteristic of the Rust Belt battlegrounds.

Though the pace of demographic change across these states is steady rather than sudden, the cumulative effect, particularly of growing racial diversity, can be profound. In 2012, President Obama won key battlegrounds such as Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, which Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in the razor-thin election of 2000—even though Obama attracted the same share, or even less, of white voters in each state than Gore had.

The declining white vote share across the swing states represents a "huge change," says Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager and the cochairman of Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that has organized to support a likely 2016 bid from Hillary Rodham Clinton. "The reason why is because America is still very close in presidential elections. We haven't had a blowout since 1988. And so in close national elections like these, a 3- or 4-point [decline in the white vote share] in a battleground state can shift the entire thing."

In 2008, Obama won all 11 of the battleground states. In 2012, he carried each of them except North Carolina, although his margin of victory declined in all of the other 10. While other states might slip into the mix—Arizona and possibly Georgia for Democrats, conceivably Minnesota and New Jersey for Republicans—it's likely that in 2016, these 11 states will again top each side's target list.

The dynamics of these 11 swing states could be complex in 2016. In Hillary Clinton, a white woman who will be 69 years old by next November, the Democrats could pick a candidate who is well positioned to minimize their disadvantages in the aging Rust Belt states, but challenged to fully turn out the minority and youth coalition the party relies upon upon in the growing Sun Belt states. "On paper it feels like she's better in the Rust Belt than she is in the Sun Belt, because I still just worry about the turnout stuff," says one top Democratic strategist who asked not to be identified. "She has a really good message for Rust Belt people."

The first chart below shows that in all 11 states, minorities are expected to constitute a larger share of the adult population eligible to vote next year than when Obama was first elected in 2008. That's according to Census Bureau data from 2008 and 2012, and projections for 2016 from the States of Change project.

This change is leaving the deepest imprint across the new swing states of the SunBelt: Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in the Southeast, and Colorado and Nevada in the Southwest. In each of those states except Colorado, the States of Change model projects that the white share of eligible voters will dip below 70 percent in 2016. In all five states, the model projects that by 2016, the white eligible voter share will drop at least 3 percentage points from where it was as recently as 2008. Over those eight years, the model foresees the biggest decline in the white eligible vote in Nevada (down 7.3 points) and Florida (down 4.5 points).

Like Messina, veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres says that while those changes may not sound large, their impact "is huge. It totally changes the calculus of the kind of coalition that can win."

Florida may be the best example of the power of demographic change to tip a state's political balance. In 2000, according to exit polls, Gore won 40 percent of Florida's whites during his fiercely fought virtual dead-heat there with Bush; 12 years later, Obama won just 37 percent of whites and carried the state by nearly 75,000 votes. The biggest difference: While whites constituted 78 percent of actual voters in 2000, they had tumbled to just 67 percent by 2012. (Obama also benefited from a shift in the Hispanic population toward non-Cubans such as Puerto Ricans, who are more receptive to Democrats.)

Likewise, according to exit polls, Obama in 2012 won exactly the same share of whites as Gore did in North Carolina (31 percent) and Virginia (37 percent). Yet while Gore lost both states badly, Obama won Virginia, and he lost North Carolina by only one-quarter of the votes that the former vice-president did. As in Florida, increased margins for Obama among minority voters contributed to these changes—but declines in the white share of the voting pool were central, too. In Nevada, similarly, Obama in 2012 exactly matched the 43 percent of the white vote that John Kerry won in 2004; but while Kerry lost the state by 21,000 votes, Obama won it by about 68,000. (The white share of actual voters fell 8 points in North Carolina and 4 points in Virginia from 2000 to 2012, and 13 points in Nevada from 2004 to 2012.) In Colorado, Obama improved on Gore's white showing and flipped the state from red to blue.

In a measure of the Obama campaign's success at mobilizing its coalition, the census surveys found that from 2008 to 2012, minorities actually increased more rapidly as a share of actual voters than they did in the eligible voter pool in Nevada, Florida, and North Carolina. In Virginia, minorities grew as a share of actual voters about half as fast as they did among eligible voters. Only in Colorado among the Sun Belt swing states did the increase in the minority pool of eligible voters fail to generate a meaningful change in the actual roster of voters on Election Day in 2012.

Across the battleground states, Messina says, the Obama campaign concluded that it was easier and more cost-effective to change the electorate by increasing minority and youth turnout than to build a winning majority from the traditional electorate by persuading enough uncommitted white voters. Gaining even 2 or 3 points among white voters in many of these states, "is a much harder challenge than doing what we did in '12, which was saying, 'We are better off expanding the electorate than we are focusing everything on the persuasion [of swing voters],' " Messina says. "In the old days, Democrats focused everything on persuasion. But when you have such a polarized electorate, getting from 41 to 43 [percent among whites] is much harder than figuring out how to put the math together in various coalitions to expand the electorate."

In 2016, a critical question facing both sides is whether the eventual Democratic nominee can "continue to energize and turn out nonwhite voters" as effectively as Obama did, notes Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. But whatever happens in 2016, the long-term trend is that more minorities in the pool of potentially eligible voters will translate into a rising minority share of the actual vote on Election Day. "This is a very long-term trend that has been going on over many elections," says Abramowitz. "If you project beyond 2016, to 2020 and 2024, there is no question the white share of the electorate is going to keep declining. It's just math."

Obama's share of the vote among whites dropped in all five Sun Belt swing states from 2008 to 2012. Democrats are optimistic that Hillary Clinton, as potentially the first female nominee, could reverse that decline in 2016. But if Democrats can't stop their slide among whites (who also broke sharply toward Republicans in each of these states in 2014), the central question across the Sun Belt next year might be: Which declines more—the share of the white vote Democrats are attracting, or the share of the white vote they need to win?

Diversity is also spreading, but much more slowly, in the six Rust Belt swing states (Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). Compared with 2008, the model projects that by 2016 the white eligible voter share will drop in a range from Pennsylvania at the high end (3.1 percentage points), to New Hampshire at the low end (1.2 points). Behind strong Obama turnout efforts, from 2008 to 2012, minorities in Ohio and Pennsylvania grew even faster as a share of actual voters than as eligible voters. That helped Obama win Ohio in 2012, despite attracting exactly the same share of the white vote (41 percent) that Gore did and less than Kerry did (44 percent) when each lost the state in 2000 and 2004 respectively. (Obama also held Pennsylvania, despite winning considerably less of the white vote than either Gore or Kerry, who both carried the state.) But, overall, racial change is not nearly as big a factor in these brawny battlegrounds as in the Sun Belt swing states.

In those critical Rust Belt states, the key demographic change is the one captured in the second chart: the population's aging. In all six Rust Belt swing states, the model projects that adults 50 and older will constitute at least 45 percent of eligible voters by 2016; for each state except Pennsylvania, that would be an increase of at least 2.3 percentage points since 2008. New Hampshire leads the list with an increase of 3.6 percentage points in the over-50 share of eligible voters; the model projects Pennsylvania, which started with the oldest eligible population, to increase the least at 1.8 percentage points. (The Sun Belt swing states are also aging, but generally not quite as fast as the Rust Belt battlegrounds.)

The tendency of older adults to outpunch their weight in the actual voting pool magnifies the implications of these changes. Across these states, adults 50 and older consistently represented an even larger share of actual than eligible voters in recent elections. In 2012, for instance, Michigan adults 50 and older represented 44 percent of eligible, but fully 55 percent of actual, voters. In Ohio, the numbers were 45 percent and 53 percent. With the States of Change model projecting that the senior share of eligible voters will rise from 2012 to 2016 in all six Rust Belt swing states, that group's share of actual voters is virtually guaranteed to increase across these critical battlegrounds as well.

That shift could pose an intensifying challenge for Democrats. These Rust Belt states loom as the great exception to a national trend that has seen Democrats lose ground since the 1990s among older whites. In these states, Democrats generally remain more competitive with older voters than almost anywhere else. As Abramowitz notes, while the staunchly conservative Silent Generation dominates today's senior population, Democrats may benefit over time as more of the early baby boomers, who lean somewhat more left in their preferences, move into retirement. And Clinton could be better suited than Obama to compete for older whites. In the near term, however, the graying of these closely divided Rust Belt states may be the best demographic news for Republicans anywhere in 2016.

Ayres, author of the new e-book 2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America, says that in the next election, Republicans must find a way to loosen the Democratic hold on both sets of swing states. Deploying a metaphor widely used to describe the Democratic political situation during the 1980s, Ayres says Republicans now are effectively competing for so few swing states that reaching an Electoral College majority "is kind of like drawing an inside straight." For 2016, he adds, "the key point is that Republicans have to expand the map and put the swing states of the Sun Belt back into play, as well as the Democratic-leaning states of the Great Lakes."

Janie Boschma contributed to this article