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The Numbers Game

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Our demographic understanding of the 2012 election continues to be fleshed out, most recently with a Census Bureau report. Some of the census findings merely confirm what we thought we knew. For instance, for all the talk about 2008 as a “historic” election, turnout, as a percentage of eligible voters, was actually down slightly that year from 2004.

Voters

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Percentage turnout decreased again in 2012, meaning that voter interest dramatically increased for three straight elections, going from 58.4 percent of eligible voters in 1996 to 63.8 percent in 2004; but it has now waned for two straight elections. This confirms suspicions that media enthusiasm for the Obama campaigns was somewhat out of sync with that of the general public.

The report’s most intriguing findings, however, were about race. Non-Hispanic whites—you may have heard this somewhere before—have steadily become a smaller percentage of voters since 1996. Whites usually overperform in elections—that is, their share of the vote typically exceeds their share of the electorate. In 1996, for instance, whites made up 79.2 percent of all eligible voters, but cast 82.5 percent of the votes.

White voters have steadily decreased their percentage in both categories. Yet they remain, by far, the biggest racial group—in 2012, 71.1 percent of eligible voters were non-Hispanic whites. And they continue to outperform as a group—in 2012 they made up 73.7 percent of all voters.

The most intriguing finding of the census, however, regards black voter turnout. Since 1996, the voter participation rates of white, Hispanic, and Asian voters have ping-ponged around, rising and dipping with no obvious trend lines. Black voters, on the other hand, have steadily increased the rate at which they vote. In 1996, 53 percent of eligible black voters went to the polls. That rate went on an uninterrupted climb and, in 2012, peaked at 66.2 percent—giving them the highest voter participation rate of any racial group in the election.

That massive increase in turnout—a 25 percent rise in the participation rate since 1996—is the biggest story of the 2012 campaign, from a political science standpoint. The question it raises is what happens next: Will the Obama presidency serve as a catalyst to permanently elevate the voter participation levels of African Americans? Or will we learn that Obama’s power to motivate those voters was unique?

Postscript: In general, the Census Bureau does cracking good work, but they aren’t immune from missteps. It was recently revealed that the census plans to remove a particularly important question from its American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS goes out to three million households a year and is one of the most robust and important tools we have for measuring and understanding American trends. The Census Bureau wants to strike a question about “number of times married” from the ACS.

It’s unclear why “number of times married” is on the chopping block, but it shouldn’t be. As Steven Ruggles, the director of the Minnesota Population Center, explains:

For those of us who study family demography, this change would be a major loss. The times married question is not only vital for understanding blended families, it is also necessary for basic studies of nuptiality and marital instability. .  .  . The ACS is the only reliable source currently available for national divorce statistics. Without the number of times married, however, the divorce data will be badly compromised; for example, it will be impossible to construct a life table for first marriages, or to estimate the percentage of people who have ever divorced.

Removing the “number of times married” question would be a mistake—a big one. Here’s hoping the good folks at the Census Bureau rectify it before it happens.

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