Minority no more

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 22, 2012


For the first time in American history, the majority of children born in the United States belong to ethnic minorities. Minorities are now becoming a majority. However, the rapidly diversifying American population will not be immediately reflected in electoral turnout. Because minorities are still underrepresented among older voters—who have much higher turnout rates—and because minorities in general vote at lower rates, non-whites will remain an electoral minority for years to come.


In 2011, non-whites comprised 50.4% of all births in the United States. Rapidly growing Latino and Asian American populations, combined with historically higher birth rates among African Americans, have made minorities a majority among newborns.  Among those aged five or younger, minorities account for 49.7%. An aging white population, falling fertility rates among those with higher income and higher educational levels and the growth of inter-racial couples has lowered the number of new born white children.


Whites remain the majority among the entire U.S. population. 63.7% of the almost 310 million inhabitants in the country are non-Latino whites.  In the U.S., Latinos can be of any race. In fact, half of the 50 million U.S. Latinos (16.3% of the national population) classify themselves as whites.  The entire white population is 72.4%, but if we exclude white Latinos, only 4 out of every ten Americans is white.


Whites are overrepresented among the well-educated, those with high income and the elderly. Because those three variables are strong determinants of likelihood to vote in elections, whites are overrepresented among voters.  Out of the 225 million Americans eligible to vote, 68% are white. Latinos comprise only 13% of the voting age population.  Among the 131 million who voted in 2008, whites represented 76%.  Latinos made up only 7.4% of those who cast ballots in 2008. The year Barack Obama became the first African American president, blacks constituted 12% of the voting population (even though they comprise only 11% of the voting age population).  Latinos had the lowest turnout rates among all major ethnic groups in the U.S.


The increasing importance of minorities in the overall American population does not automatically translate into an increasing electoral weight for minorities.  The fact that minorities are younger and vote at lower levels than whites diminishes their electoral power. Moreover, the fact that minorities mostly live in in areas where one party is predominant also undermines their potential decisive power.  About 1 in every three Latinos resides in California, a state that has consistently voted democratic in recent elections.  About three thirds of Latinos live in states that are overwhelming Democratic—like New York, California or Illinois—or strongly Republican-like Texas.  Similarly, many African Americans live in strongly Republican southern states or in democratic-leaning California, New York and Illinois.


To be sure, Latinos and African Americans are not totally deprived of electoral influence. Several of the strongly leaning Democratic states are so precisely because of their large minority population. Other states are toss-up states—like Florida, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina—due to their growing Latino population. The majority of white voters in those states are more inclined to support the Republican candidate, but a strong turnout among Latinos and African American in those states will make it very difficult for Obama to lose there.  Higher turnout rates among Latinos in places like Texas would weaken the historic dominance of the Republican Party.


Still, minorities will weight much less in the outcome of the presidential election in November than census numbers would have us believe.   They are less educated and have lower incomes than whites. In n the case of Latinos, many of them are not even eligible to vote.  Minorities also tend to be underrepresented in toss up states. As a result, they will not play an evidently relevant role in the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.  Yet, because minorities are predominantly younger than whites, in the long term the Republican Party must reach out to minorities if it intends to remain electorally competitive.


When the numbers are closely disaggregated, the importance of minorities cannot be summarily discarded. As they vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, the slowly growing ethnic minority voting blocs are making it more difficult for the Republican Party to remain competitive. Because of the overwhelming dominance of whites among voters, Republicans can still win without attracting many minority voters, but their margin of victory among whites has to be large enough to compensate for the democratic advantage among minorities. Unfortunately for Republicans, they now need low turnout among minorities in order to win an election.  


If the campaign turns out to address issues that polarize the minority electorate and turnout among African American and Latinos increases, then Republicans will stand no chance of winning an electoral majority. Though the democrats will certainly try to get minorities involved in the election, it is unlikely that they will succeed in 2012. Minorities will likely again vote at lower rates than whites and thus will not be decisive in the election. At least, that is what Republicans are now counting on.