ATLANTA -- Adding to the Democrats’ delight and the Republicans’ woes is new data showing the voter-turnout trends are tipping the partisan balance.
Since President Barack Obama’s November re-election, party operatives have talked about how demographics changes are challenging the Republican Party, nationally and in Georgia. The voters in the Democrats’ corner, such as blacks and other ethnic minorities, are growing faster than the whites the GOP relies on.
Higher birth rates and in-migration rates tell the story.
Now comes a report from the U.S. Census Bureau that compounds that by revealing the turnout rate of racial and ethnic groups in presidential elections. Nationally, blacks have been voting at an increasing rate while the turnout rate among whites has been declining.
That pattern is the same in the Southeast, including Georgia.
The difference sounds small; 66.2 percent of eligible blacks voted compared to 64.1 percent of whites in the 2012 election. But the trend is what’s interesting.
In presidential elections since 1996, black voter turnout has steadily risen from 53.0 percent. At the same time, white turnout started higher than blacks at 60.7 percent in ‘96, then peaked at 67.2 percent in 2004 before dropping the next two elections.
Black turnout in the heart of the Old South, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky, was more than 6 percent higher than white voting rates. In Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas and Virginias, it was higher but not over 6 percent. The statistics don’t offer a state-by-state breakdown or show if the pattern is moving eastward.
“Between 1996 and 2012, the black population, the Asian population, and the Hispanic population all saw their shares of the eligible electorate and the voting popula¬tion increase,” note the authors of the Census report. “Non-Hispanic whites were the only race group whose shares of the eligible electorate and the voting population did not increase.”
The Census report also shows that women, both black and white, vote at higher rates. That spells more trouble for Republicans, especially with younger women who are less likely to be married or church-goers than their mothers and grandmothers, and therefore less conservative.
Political consultant Mark Rountree, president of Landmark Communications in Atlanta, says the trends present a challenge for Republican leaders because changing them takes such a long time.
“It will take a generation or two to change the way voters look at Republicans,” he said.
An immediate task for the new state party chairman who’ll be elected May 18 in Athens is boosting reliable GOP turnout. If white turnout had held steady at its peak level, Mitt Romney would be president now.
Often voters will stay home when they sense that their candidate has no chance. Why bother if voting won’t have any impact, they figure.
Despite a few polls by the Gallop Organization or comments by Karl Rove and Dick Morris on Fox News that Romney would win, most of the pollsters and media pundits were hailing Obama as re-elected. Had they instead said the results were a tossup, those discouraged white voters most likely would have cast their ballots and put Romney over, assuming they followed usual patterns of partisan leaning.
So, Republicans’ first job is to generate the turnout of their own base.
A tougher, long-term quest is to win over blacks, Hispanics and Asians. The candidates for state GOP chairman have uniformly said in debates that they think it can be done with better communication and aggressive outreach.
Democrats, who can’t wait for the tide to turn, argue that only policy change can pull away minorities.
Democrats’ job, of course, is not to derail the train and to speed it up if possible, but that’s not a sure thing. Americans today have more information, react quicker to trends and are increasingly independent of both political parties and consumer brands. They could easily bolt from the Democrats if the GOP comes up with an enticing message.
The Democrats also have the disadvantage here of having no statewide offices, little money and slim recruiting luck.
Last week’s special election in South Carolina where former GOP Gov. Mark Sanford beat Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the 1st Congressional District shows what can be done in an era of unlimited super PAC spending. But presidential elections and statewide races aren’t determined by careful redistricting that bunches like-minded voters together into overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic districts.
So, it may be a mistake to take Sanford’s victory as proof that Republicans have bucked the demographic and turnout trends.