The ethnic mix of this year’s electorate could decide the winner of the race between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
It’s a reality that gives both campaigns sleepless nights, since a shift of a percentage point or two in the turnout of any major racial group could swing the outcome on Nov. 6.
For Obama, the question is whether he can limit his losses among white voters — and whether minority turnout will remain strong enough for him to emerge victorious.
According to exit polls from 2008, Obama lost the white vote to Sen. John McCainJohn McCainA Cabinet position for Petraeus; disciplinary actions for Broadwell after affair Meet Trump’s ‘mad dog’ for the Pentagon Wrestling mogul McMahon could slam her way into Trump administration MORE (R-Ariz.) by 12 percentage points (43 to 55 percent). But Obama won black voters overwhelmingly (95 to 4 percent) and Hispanic voters by more than a two-to-one margin (67 to 31 percent).
The downward pressure on Obama’s poll numbers among whites is clear. But polls, even from the same organization, disagree about its extent.
A Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll from Oct. 25 put Obama’s shortfall among whites at 23 percentage points (37 to 60 percent), a finding that sparked confidence from Republicans and inspired dread among Democrats.
The most recent iteration of the same tracking poll, however, found the margin to be 5 percentage points tighter, with Romney leading, 57 to 39 percent.
Given that whites represent about three-quarters of all voters, that 5-point shift would equate to a 3.75-point change in the overall national result — more than enough to produce a completely different winner.
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If that does not introduce enough uncertainty into the mix, consider this: Contrary to general belief, there is not unanimous agreement on how the electorate was composed in 2008.
The figures most frequently cited about 2008 — including those mentioned above — come from the nationwide exit poll results available on the website of CNN.
Those figures show that 74 percent of 2008 voters were white, 13 percent were black and 9 percent were Hispanic. This represented a fall of 2 percentage points in the white vote total from 2004, an increase of 3 percentage points for the black vote and a rise of 1 percentage point for the Hispanic vote.
The CNN exit poll came from interviews of almost 18,000 voters.
But as some bloggers, including Keith Backer of the Battleground Watch blog, have noted, the Census Bureau also produces turnout figures. In 2008, the census numbers differed in small but important ways from those of CNN.
The census data is extrapolated through the same kind of household survey used to produce labor market statistics and includes about 60,000 households. It found that the 2008 electorate was 76 percent, not 74 percent, white; 12 percent, not 13 percent, black; and 7 percent, not 9 percent, Hispanic.
If the differences seem small, their significance is revealed when the most recent Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll is plugged into the two different models.
The poll found Obama winning the support of blacks by 94 to 5 percent and Hispanics by 69 to 29 percent, in addition to his 39-to-57 percent deficit among whites mentioned earlier.
If those figures were translated to an electorate that was ethnically the same as the 2008 CNN exit poll — and if smaller ethnic groups are ignored — Obama would have a 1-point nationwide edge, 47 to 46 percent.
But if this week’s poll tracker figures were instead transposed to an electorate comprising the statistics emanating from the Census Bureau, this election would be tied, at 46 percent apiece.
Added to that is an obvious but overarching fact: No one yet knows the makeup of the 2012 electorate.
When the Census Bureau compared the 2008 electorate against the 2004 electorate, for instance, it found that in the more recent election 2 million more African-Americans and 2 million more Hispanics had voted, in addition to about 600,000 more Asian voters. “The number of non-Hispanic white voters remained statistically unchanged,” the Census Bureau reported.
That finding alone raises questions to which no one really knows the answer: Was the higher number of black and Hispanic voters in 2008 overwhelmingly a consequence of excitement about Obama’s historic candidacy that year, and if so, might that excitement have faded? Was the Hispanic increase instead a consequence of demographic changes that might have kept pace or even accelerated since then?
Each campaign, naturally enough, is trying to spin the situation to its advantage:
“The Romney campaign is saying our coalition of women, Latinos, African-Americans and young voters isn’t going to show up to vote. That’s not so much a prediction on Romney’s part as it is wishful thinking,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said during a conference call with reporters on Monday.
“More Latinos will vote this year than ever before, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of the electorate,” Messina said, asserting that the Romney camp “believe[s] the electorate looks like what it used to, in 2004 or 2008. Well, it doesn’t. The electorate continues to be more diverse than ever.”
The Romney campaign talks less overtly about race, perhaps mindful of the pitfalls of doing so while running against the nation’s first black president. But aides to the GOP nominee insist that Messina’s figures are nothing but a pipe dream.
Romney’s lead pollster, Neil Newhouse, said during a conference call Wednesday that “you are seeing a lack of intensity for Obama reflected in a lot of the data.” The prospect that this year’s electorate would replicate that of 2008, he added, was “just really a stretch.”
One man will be right and one wrong next Tuesday. Accuracy could mean the difference between winning and losing the election.