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Introducing Electionate: Will Demographics Be Destiny in 2012?

From messaging to ad placement, campaigns make critical decisions based on demographics and geography. Indeed, coverage of campaign decision-making and the ups and downs of the horserace are incomplete without accounting for these variables. That’s why I’ll be following the evolution of the electorate and how it shapes the campaign at TNR. 

Demographics aren’t quite destiny, but they’ll play an outsized role in the 2012 presidential election. The Obama campaign is counting on repeating an unprecedented performance among non-white voters. If the Obama campaign succeeds, Romney will need to counter with a historic share of the white vote. Should non-white voters support Obama to the extent they did in 2008, Romney will need to compensate by winning 60 percent of the white vote while holding Obama to 38 percent.

In the modern political era, it has taken extraordinary circumstances for Democrats to do so poorly with whites. The last Democratic candidate to fall so low was Walter Mondale, who only won 35 percent of the white vote in 1984. (That said, to the extent that congressional elections can be used as a proxy, the 2010 midterms augur better for Romney: In 2010, House Democrats only won 37 percent of the white vote.) Recent polls confirm that Romney has a tough fight ahead. In polls conducted over the last month, Obama averages approximately 39 percent of the white vote—enough to secure victory, if his share of the non-white vote matches that of 2008—while Romney lags well behind his 60 percent target, holding at around 53 percent of the white vote.

Of course, just because Romney is in uncharted territory doesn’t mean he can’t conquer it. Given the prevailing political and economic climate, Romney will certainly have the opportunity to assemble the requisite number of votes—especially since there is no guarantee that non-white voters will turnout and support Obama as they did in 2008. Even if Romney is forced to deal with a worst case scenario, he can take solace knowing that old certainties are often cast aside in election campaigns. Indeed, the new precedents that emerge to take their place often seem, in retrospect, both easy and obvious. Since 1948, the GOP has made a veritable habit of breaking new electoral ground, whether it was Goldwater’s sweep of the Deep South after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, or George W. Bush’s victory in West Virginia in 2000.

There are still many unresolved questions that will be pivotal to the election. Will Obama’s young and diverse base turnout to the degree necessary to force Romney to make historic gains among whites? If Romney does need to win 60 percent of the white vote, who are the voters he will need to persuade? What are their backgrounds, beliefs, and aspirations and how does that influence campaign strategy? How does their distribution alter the electoral map? With the help of new data, I’ll be expanding on all of these questions, and hopefully providing answers, throughout the election campaign.