Op-Ed

Older White Vote Still Powerhouse in White House Contest

William H. Frey

Minority populations are growing, but for now, they are less likely to vote and aren’t in key states.

With the presidential election just nine days away, the competition for votes in Florida and other battleground states has become ferocious.

Knowing that the November 2000 outcomes of two states, Florida and New Mexico, were decided by 903 votes combined, anxious political operatives have discovered a range of new demographic niches to chase—from young “security moms” to Gen Y punk-rock aficionados.

Among these is the nation’s growing Hispanic population, which has become a coveted demographic prize for both parties. Hispanics now comprise the nation’s largest and biggest-gaining minority group.

In record numbers, they are pouring into Florida from elsewhere in the United States and all parts of Latin America, and into Western battleground states—such as Arizona, Nevada and Colorado—from California and Mexico.

It is no surprise, then, that the candidates and their surrogates, like presidential nephew George P. Bush and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, are spending much of these final campaign days in battleground-state Hispanic communities.

Yet this zeal to capture the political loyalties of the nation’s younger and multiethnic future may prove to be misplaced. When the final results of next week’s contest are tallied, I think that the next president will be elected by the demographic staple of America’s past—older whites.

Older whites, including the “greatest generation” and older baby boomers, may no longer be the darlings of TV’s Nielsen ratings or the intended audience for most R-rated Hollywood blockbusters.

However, they have two important attributes for next week’s face-off: They are more likely to vote than the new, more-celebrated demographic groups, and, for this election especially, they are residing in the right states at the right time.

It is well-known that voting is more prevalent among the older population, but the contrast between whites and other major racial groups is even sharper.

One reason for this is a “translation problem.” For Hispanics in particular, their growing population does not translate directly into voters. Because they are younger than the general population, one third of Hispanics are below voting age, and more than a quarter are not citizens.

For every 100 Hispanics in the population, only 40 are eligible to vote, 23 are likely to register, and just 18 will show up at the ballot box. The voter-to-population translation is almost as low for Asians, where only 21 out of 100 people will likely vote. For blacks the number is 37, and for whites, almost half.

As a consequence, the racial profile of the voting population looks far less like a rainbow than the total population’s.

Minorities now comprise about one third of the total U.S. population, but among people casting votes next week, it is expected that four out of five will be white. And 60 percent of these white voters will be older than 45.

Older whites also are better positioned geographically than minorities to have an impact on the outcome next week. Most of the nation’s Hispanic population resides in large safely “blue” states such as California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, or in the safe “red” state of Texas.

Although there is significant spill-out to battlegrounds, more than three-quarters of the nation’s Hispanics live outside of the 18 battleground states.

More than 80 percent of Asian-Americans do not reside there. And for blacks, their recent migration out of the North to mostly “red” Southern states has had the effect of diminishing their impact on battleground states they have left, such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

On Election Day, only one out of four black voters will reside in the battlegrounds. In contrast, 39 percent of all whites will cast votes in battleground states.

The clout of older whites can be best understood by drawing a contrast between the battleground states themselves. In light of its “interesting” election history and its 27 electoral votes, Florida has deservedly received the most attention of all the battlegrounds.

Yet it is clearly a demographic outsider among the largest ones. Like much of the nation’s prosperous Sun Belt, it is growing rapidly from both immigration and domestic in-movement of whites, blacks, and Hispanics, which gives it a demographic dynamism and melting-pot feel.

The new influx of white suburbanites, Puerto Ricans and blacks, in addition to Latin American immigrants, has not only changed the racial complexion of the state but also its political makeup at a pace that has kept pollsters scrambling.

Though white seniors are still important, the new more youthful multicultural and white suburban-growth surge focuses interest away from senior issues toward concerns of education, affordable housing, and small-business opportunities.

This hardly is the case in the other big battleground states, located in the nation’s Rust Belt.

States such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan are out-migration states and hardly magnets for new immigrants. They are composed of left-behind populations as young families, upscale “empty nesters” and Gen X professionals head for the Sun Belt or “cooler,” more-cosmopolitan blue America states.

The left-behind populations are made up disproportionately of white seniors and aging boomers, including current and ex-blue-collar workers who have borne the brunt of heavy industry’s demise.

More than one third of Ohio’s voting-age population consists of whites age 45 or older who lack a college education. Many belonged to unions and lived through the Great Society as well as the Reagan Revolution.

To them, economic survival is important. Their concerns about jobs, health care, and Social Security benefits are stronger than in other parts of the country—where the Iraqi war or wedge issues of the cultural right such as gay-marriage bans or of the liberal left such as corporate scandals—hold more sway.

Moreover, their voting populations on Election Day will hardly be racially diverse: 87 percent white in Ohio, 89 percent in Pennsylvania and 84 percent in Michigan, in contrast with Florida, where more than one out of four voters will be nonwhite.

Of the 18 battleground states, 11—mostly in the Midwest and North—possess demographics closer to Ohio’s than to Florida’s. These slow-growing states comprise 115 electoral votes, compared with 74 in the latter group. They have more whites and older population than the rest of America and, in fact, lost five electoral votes after the 2000 census reapportionment.

Yet because of the sharp polarization of much of the country into red and blue states, this throw-back population will have an outsized influence on electing the next president. It is not a coincidence that Bush’s and Kerry’s programs benefiting senior citizens have gotten more play in their nationally televised debates and commercials than has the price tag these programs will leave for the next generation.

The remaining seven battlegrounds, including Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, have more in common with Florida than Ohio. With their fast growth and increasing immigration, their demographics reflect America’s future, and one not necessarily tied to a single party’s identity.

They too may have an impact on the expected razor-thin margin of this election. But their clout will be greater in 2008 and especially in 2012 as more U.S.-born Hispanics and Asians reach voting age and after the 2010 census awards these states additional electoral votes.

Still, by measure of sheer demographic force, it appears that older white voters in slow-growing states are now firmly in the driver’s seat. In terms of electing a president, this may well be their last hurrah.

Get daily updates from Brookings