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There Aren't As Many Missing Voters As It Seems

In the aftermath of Obama's election, one emerging theme is the "missing voter." Romney campaign advisors apparently told members of the press that McCain received 2 million fewer votes than they did in 2008. In a column on RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende estimates that white turnout declined by 7 percent from 2008. Given expectations of a strong GOP turnout, such a decline would be quite surprising.  It’s possible that the certified results will confirm Trende’s claim, but I have my doubts. As many have already pointed out, there are plenty of votes left to be counted. Indeed, there could easily be ten million votes left or even more, and I suspect there won't be as many missing voters as it currently seems.

In 2008, 10 million additional votes were tabulated between this time four years ago and the certification of results. Whether the raw tally will exceed ’08 levels is hard to say, but I wouldn't dismiss that possibility with so many votes outstanding in New York, Oregon, New Jersey, Arizona, California, and Washington, where fewer than 80 percent of '08 ballots have been tabulated as a result of mail voting, the Hurricane, or whatever is wrong in Arizona. At the very least, I would take the “over” on Trende’s guesstimate of seven million votes. 

Trende might be underestimating the number of outstanding votes in Ohio, as well. After the initial count in the Buckeye State, Ohio tabulated more than 400,000 additional votes in 2008. If the same number of additional ballots are counted from this point onward, turnout will match ’08 levels: At this time four years ago, Obama and McCain held a total of 5.21 million votes; today, Obama and Romney hold 5.29 million votes. Needless to say, that’s close enough to withhold judgment on the extent that turnout declined until after the Secretary of State certifies the final results.

At the county-level, there's not much evidence that turnout declined in white counties by much more than it did in minority counties, at least not yet (and that could easily change if most of the remaining votes are in urban areas, as they certainly could be). Let’s take Ohio. If the exit polls are right and turnout matches ’08 levels, then white turnout fell by 5 percent since 2008 and minority turnout increased by 20 to 25 percent. But there isn’t evidence of a disproportionate decline in turnout in Ohio’s white counties compared to heavily minority counties. Currently, statewide turnout is at 93.7 percent of ’08 levels, compared to a slightly smaller 93.3 percent of ’08 levels in the six counties where minorities represent at least 20 percent of the population—Cuyahoga, Hamilton, Lucas, Montgomery, Franklin, and Mahoning. Again, late votes might bolster these tallies, but they haven’t yet.

Nationally, turnout has already surpassed ’08 levels in eight quick counting states, including lily-white Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota. What about the other states? With the states at very different stages in their count, an interstate comparison isn't especially useful. Instead, an intrastate approach is necessary to demonstrate a decline in white turnout at this early stage; one needs a state with both white and minority counties where the initial returns in the white counties are several percent further beneath ’08 levels than the diverse counties. 

I’ve only checked a few states (it’s a little time consuming), but I don’t see signs of a disproportionate decline in turnout in the white areas of Illinois, Virginia, or Ohio. In Illinois, statewide turnout has reached 92.5 percent of ’08 levels, but just 90.9 percent in Cook County—home to most of the state’s minority population (I chose Illinois for that reason). Turnout in Virginia is already at 99 percent of the 2008 tally, even though the count is still beneath 90 percent in three of the state’s largest and most diverse counties—Fairfax, Virginia Beach, and Norfolk. The count is well ahead of where it was at this time four years ago. In Virginia, the real story is the further increase in black turnout, which will earn a post over the next few days. At the very least, these figures in Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia, and Ohio suggest that low white turnout wasn’t responsible for Romney’s defeat in the critical battleground states, even if it hurt his standing in the national popular vote. 

In the end, total turnout will probably approach '08 levels, although it's unclear whether it will ultimately exceed it. Romney will probably end with more votes than any candidate in history who isn't named Barack Obama, demonstrating a strong GOP turnout. Given the initial exit poll data and the current national popular vote tally, it looks like white turnout might have declined slightly since 2008. I'm holding off judging just how much until the final exit polls and results are reported, but I'd be quite surprised if it turned out to be 7 percent--especially in the battleground states.