A Friday Washington Post analysis brought to light a staggering obstacle for the Obama campaign.
“The number of black and Hispanic registered voters has fallen sharply since 2008, posing a serious challenge to the Obama campaign in an election that could turn on the participation of minority voters,” the article read. “Voter rolls typically shrink in non-presidential election years and registrations among whites fell at roughly the same rate, but this is the first time in nearly four decades that the number of registered Hispanics has dropped significantly. That figure fell 5 percent across the country, to about 11 million, according to the Census Bureau. But in some politically important swing states, the decline among Hispanics, who are considered critical in the 2012 presidential contest, is much higher: just over 28 percent in New Mexico, for example, and about 10 percent in Florida. For blacks, whose registration numbers are down 7 percent nationwide, and Hispanics, the large decrease is attributed to the ailing economy, which forced many Americans to move in search of work or because of other financial upheaval.”
Alarming — and darkly ironic. The economic and housing crises Obama inherited could potentially become the source of the disruption that sees him ousted from office after only one term. But is the problem real — and if so, is it fixable?
According to the Obama campaign, and to the political scientist who calculates a widely accepted measure of the actual voting-eligible turnout rate, it’s not such a desperate situation for Obama after all.
In recent years, according to Michael McDonald, a government and politics professor at George Mason University, the Census’ Current Population Survey statistic the Post relied on has varied in a troubling way with the ultimate turnout figures. Whether you compare presidential years (2004 and 2008) or midterm-years (2006 and 2010) the CPS measure has found turnout decreasing. The opposite has been the case.
That, McDonald argues, is because of a peculiarity in the way Census compiles its registration and turnout figures. It asks one adult to answer for all members of a household, and counts those who fail to respond “yes” or “no” to the voting survey question as having not voted.
When you revisit the numbers after throwing out all the non-respondents, the results track the official figures much more closely.
What does all this have to do with registration (as opposed to turnout)? When you perform the same correction to the registration results — the ones the Post used — the problem goes away.
“The corrected data show that Hispanics are registered at a statistically-indistinguishably slightly higher turnout rate than 2006 and Blacks have experienced a significant registration increase,” McDonald writes. “The Obama campaign appears better situated in terms of registering of Blacks and Hispanics in the wake of the 2010 election than in the wake of the 2006 election. That these minority populations are also growing in size relative to the non-Hispanic White population should give more worry to the Romney campaign than to the Obama campaign.”
Asked for comment, the Obama campaign cited a rejoinder written Monday by Clo Ewing, Obama’s director of constituency press. Rather than use the Post report to feed registration efforts, the campaign disputes it outright. Ewing notes that millions of African American and Latino voters have registered since November 2010, when the Census was taken.
Ewing also argues, “when you compare the number of Latino and African American voters in November 2010 to those in November 2006, or compare the rolls in May 2012 to May 2008, it’s clear that the number goes up, not down, in each case.”
That’s not to say that the fallout from the economic and housing crises hasn’t complicated Obama’s re-election efforts in a number of ways. But they think they have a handle on this one.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.