Washington — A U.S. voting booth does not ask about race, religion or ethnicity. The ballot carries the names of the candidates but not the name of the voter. The only pieces of personal data known absolutely are that the voter is at least 18 years of age and a U.S. citizen.
The composition of the U.S. electorate changes with every election. The voters to whom presidential candidates must appeal in 2012 have changed since Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
“The tectonic plates of American politics are shifting,” analyst Ruy Teixeira writes in a paper prepared for the “Future of the Parties” conference at Kenyon College in March 2010. “A powerful concatenation of demographic forces is transforming the American electorate and reshaping both major political parties.”
Data from the 2010 census show the minority population in the United States increased over the last decade by 30 percent (Hispanics by 43 percent), while the white population grew 1 percent. The dramatic difference in growth rates means communities of color accounted for 92 percent of the U.S. population growth between 2000 and 2010. The 2010 minority share of the population was 36 percent, up more than 5 percentage points from 2000.
Those figures suggest the share of minority voters should be about 28 percent in 2012, up from 26 percent in 2008. However, raw population figures cannot predict who actually shows up to vote. Voter turnout varies significantly among various races and ethnicities. Exit poll data collected in the 2008 and 2010 elections suggest minority voting is increasing more quickly than minority population growth.
The strong growth in the Hispanic population is not matched by its voting strength. Only 42 percent of Hispanic Americans are eligible to vote, disqualified either by youth or lack of citizenship. In contrast, 77 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 66 percent of African Americans will be eligible to vote in 2012, according to a 2009 report from the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center.
However, the Hispanic portion of the U.S. voting electorate has grown steadily, from 2 percent in the early 1990s to 9 percent in 2008. Analysts predict that by 2020 more ballots will be cast in U.S. elections by Hispanic Americans than by African Americans.
Asian Americans are another significant contributor to minority population growth, increasing about 26 percent in the past decade. In 2010, Asian Americans made up about 5 percent of the population and 2 percent of voters, according to a 2010 Brookings Institution report.
Another other key demographic for 2012 is the young-voter group — members of the millennial generation (those born in years 1979–2000). In 2008, they made up 18 percent of voters. That figure should be significantly larger in 2012 as more young people enter the voting pool. About 48 million millennials were eligible voters in 2008, a figure that has increased at a rate of about 4 million a year. Political analysts predict 35 million millennials will cast ballots in 2012, an estimated 26 percent of all voters.
Young voters might be the most unreliable voting group in the United States. Their enthusiasm was tepid in the 2010 election, when the 18- to-29-year-old vote share dropped from 18 percent in 2008 to 12 percent, low even for an off-year election.
Religious diversity also is growing in the United States, with a particularly rapid increase in secular voters. The percentage of adults reporting no religious affiliation almost tripled from 1944 to 2004, according to Teixeira, rising from 5 percent to 14 percent. If this trend continues, 20 percent to 25 percent of U.S. adults will be unaffiliated by 2024.
This trend — combined with growth among non-Christian faiths and race-ethnic trends — suggests demographics no longer will define the United States as a white Christian nation when the 2016 presidential election is held.
VOTING PATTERNS FOR 2012?
General trends established over the past four or five decades probably will continue. Young voters, minority voters, secular voters (those without strong ties to religious communities) and urban voters tend to favor Democratic candidates. Older, whiter, more religious voters and those living in rural areas are more likely to support Republican candidates.
What will be different? Changes in so-called “swing states” that are neither strongly Democratic nor strongly Republican might be key.
Six states (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) are all marked by slow growth and by a relatively small and slow-growing percentage of voters from communities of color. These states are projected to average around 15 percent minority voters in 2012, ranging from a low of 10 percent in Iowa to a high of 21 percent in Pennsylvania.
Three Southwest states (Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico) are experiencing fast growth and have relatively high and growing percentages of minority, chiefly Hispanic, voters. These states are projected to average around 36 percent minority voters in 2012, ranging from a low of 21 percent in Colorado to a high of 52 percent in New Mexico.
The three “New South” states (Florida, North Carolina and Virginia) are all marked by fast growth, driven at least in part by their burgeoning minority populations. These states are projected to average around 31 percent minority voters in 2012.
Demographics are only one part of the U.S. election puzzle. Control of the White House and Capitol Hill will be determined by the voters who actually go to the polls. As in every election, those voters will be motivated by enthusiasm and unhappiness, hope and fear, and — just a little bit — by the weather.