The percentage of black voters in a presidential election eclipsed the voter turnout rate for white Americans for the first time in 2012, marking a watershed moment in American politics.
“This is a more diverse electorate than ever before,” said Robert Bernstein, a spokesperson for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Here in Connecticut, black voter turnout has not yet overshadowed white turnout, but the trend is pushing that way. In 1996, only 32.6 percent of black voters made their way to the polls to decide the race between President Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. But in 2012, when President Barack Obama faced off challenger Mitt Romney, that rate was 30 percentage points higher, coming in at a 62.2 percent turnout rate for black voters – only 3.6 percentage points lower than white turnout, closing a gap that had been 30 percentage points wide 16 years earlier.
That rate of shift is much quicker than the national rate, according to a new report, released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau, which found that “since 1996, Black voting rates have gone from trailing those of non-Hispanic Whites by about 8 percentage points to surpassing them in 2012.”
It’s difficult to say what this will mean for the American electorate, said Ronal Schurin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.
“President Obama won this election because he had not just a very high percentage of minority votes, but because the turnout was high, and there are some who speculate the turnout was high among African Americans in particular,” Schurin said Wednesday. And there is one theory about the key factor that tipped the scales in that direction.
“President Obama has a special appeal to African American voters in the same way that President Kennedy did for Roman Catholic voters,” Schurin said. “There was a special dynamic in the 2012 presidential election and I’m going to be very interested to see what happens in the midterm elections in 2014.”
The increasing black turnout is certainly part of an upward trend, but it isn’t easy to predict how that will continue in 2016 if the candidates aren’t black themselves. Though there is one thing that Schurin said is certain: The Republican Party has a choice to make.
“The Republican Party’s percentage among white voters is very high,” said Schurin. “They can try as (President) Bush did in 2004, to increase turnout in white voters by making a really concerted campaign and make up for the discrepancy that way. Or they can try to increase their appeal among minority voters.”
If the demographic shift of the nation is any indicator, the only way to sustain growth over the long term for the Republican Party would be to widen their appeal among black and Hispanic voters.
According to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation will be one of minority majority in 30 years’ time, meaning that by the time 2043 rolls around, there will be fewer white citizens than there will non-white citizens in America.
And while the black population will continue to grow, the growth in Hispanic residents will continue its strong surge in the next few decades. In a research paper published by the Washington, D.C.-based fact tank The Pew Research Center, researchers declared that by 2050, this Hispanic population could account for as much as 29 percent of the nation’s population, up from 17 percent today. At the same time, black population would increase from 12 to 13 percent, as the Asian population climbs from 5 percent to 9 percent. At the same time, the white population’s share of the total nation would fall from 63 percent in 2011 to 47 percent in 2050, according to Pew.
The Hispanic population has been growing more quickly than all other ethnic groups for several years now, and that swing has also been seen at the voting booth.
“Nationally, we found that the voting rates (for the Hispanic population) were much lower than for blacks and non-Hispanic whites,” said Bernstein. “But even if their rates didn’t change, the fact that the Hispanic population is growing does give them a larger share of the electorate.”
At the time of the 1996 election, there were 18.4 million Hispanic Americans living in the country; by last November that number had almost doubled to 35.2 million people, and the number of those Americans casting ballots more than doubled from 4.9 million in 1996 to 11.2 million in 2012.
In Connecticut, the number of Hispanic voters increased from 49,000 in 1996 to 103,000 in 2012, according to the census. Still, the turnout rate among Hispanic voters in Connecticut has only increased by 13.7 percent since 1996, which is significantly lower than the 21.3 percent increase seen nationally.
This means the majority of the increase is due to the larger share of the population held by Hispanic Americans these days, rather than an upswing of voting among members of the Hispanic community. But even with lower turnout rates than white and black voters, the Hispanic population is growing enough to add to the changing landscape of American voters, which will likely spur changes in the way candidates run their campaigns in the near future.