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New Data on Obama's Massive Demographic Advantage

It’s widely acknowledged by political observers that the country’s demographic change in the last four years—particularly the increase in minority voters and decline of white non-college voters—favors President Obama’s re-election bid. What’s less obvious is exactly how much these changes favor Obama—especially in the swing states that loom so large in this coming election.

These data can be hard to come by. The most straightforward way to look at this is to estimate how much the composition of eligible voters—that is, those 18-and-over who are citizens—has changed between 2008 and 2012 in these states. This is frequently proxied by looking at changes in overall population share, as measured by sources like the Census. But there’s a big problem with using that data: Such sources include noncitizens and children, who can’t vote, and typically do not cover the actual years in questions, 2008-2012.

We avoided these problems by using data from the November 2008 and May 2012 Current Population Surveys, data sources which permit us to remove children and noncitizens from our counts. It is not perfect—there are some weighting differences between the two surveys and, of course, we cannot use data from November 2012 to get a full four years. But these data provide the latest and most direct estimate of demographic change relevant to the 2012 election.

Our analysis confirms that President Obama will derive substantial benefit from shifts in the voter pool between 2008 and 2012, though there is considerable—and sometimes—surprising variation across states. Start with the national picture. Here, as in our state-by-state analysis, we concentrate on three broad demographic groups that have dominated news coverage: minorities; white non-college (or working class); and white college-educated.

Minorities, 80 percent of whom supported Obama in 2008, have increased their share of eligible voters across the time period by around 3 percentage points. (About three-fifths of this is from Hispanics, most of the rest from Asians and those of “other race.”) White working class voters, whom Obama lost by 18 points, have decreased their share of eligible voters by about the same amount. And white college-educated voters, whom Obama lost by only 4 points, were roughly stable (a very slight two-tenths of a percentage point uptick in their share of eligibles.)

These data indicate that the national trends that favored Obama in 2008 have continued apace in his first terms. But what of the swing states, where his fate will be truly decided?

Here the general picture is also favorable to Obama, though some states are much more favorable than others. Looking first at the Mountain West, the two key states here are Nevada and Colorado (That’s because New Mexico is highly likely to go for Obama, while Arizona is realistically a long shot for him). Nevada is the nation’s leader in demographic change: Between 2008 and 2012, the minority share of eligible voters increased by an astonishing 9 points, more than 2 points a year. Minorities are now almost 40 percent of Nevada’s eligible voters. At the same time, the share of white non-college eligibles has declined by over 5 points in the state and white college eligibles by 3 points.

Colorado has also experienced a high level of demographic change in the last four years, if not quite in Nevada’s league. The share of minority eligible voters has grown by over three points—almost entirely from Hispanics—and there has been a roughly equal decline in the share of white working class eligibles, by far Obama’s worst group in the state.

Turning to the New South swing states of North Carolina and Florida, there have also been sizable demographic shifts over the last four years. In North Carolina, the minority share of eligible voters has gone up over 4 points, with simultaneous declines of around 2 points in both white college and white non-college eligibles. In Florida, the increase in minority share has also been about 4 points, while white working class eligibles have declined 3 points and white college eligibles by 1 point.

The other competitive New South state, Virginia, has seen significantly less demographic change, despite being the southern swing state where Obama has been polling the strongest. Minority eligible voters are only up a single percentage point in the state. However, white college graduate eligibles, among whom Obama ran relatively well in 2008, are also up a point, while white non-college eligibles, where Obama fared the poorest, are down 2 points.

Most of the rest of the competitive states are in the Midwest/Rust Belt area, in an arc of five states stretching west from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Of these five states, the one exhibiting the greatest amount of demographic change by far is Wisconsin. Since 2008, the share of minority eligibles has risen by 3 points, while white college graduates have increased by 4 points and white working class eligibles have declined sharply by 7 points.

More modest, but still significant amounts of demographic change have taken place in Pennsylvania and Michigan. In Pennsylvania, the minority share of eligible voters is up 2 points, while white non-college eligibles, whom Obama lost by 15 points in 2008, are down a similar amount. In Michigan, the minority share of eligibles is also up 2 points, while white college eligibles are up a point and white non-college eligibles are down 2 points.

The other two states, Ohio and Iowa, have seen the least amount of change. Ohio’s minority share of eligible voters has been almost flat (up a mere three-tenths of a percentage point) while white working class eligibles were actually up a point. And in Iowa, there has been no change at all in the minority share of eligibles, while white working class eligibles increased by a point and white college eligibles decreased by the same amount. Perhaps not coincidentally, these two states have also been the tightest for Obama among the region’s swing states.

The only competitive state outside of these three regions is New Hampshire. Like Ohio and Iowa, New Hampshire has seen essentially no change in its minority share of eligible voters, but it has seen substantial change within the white population. There has been a 4 point decline in white non-college eligibles and a 4 point increase in white college eligibles—a group that supported Obama by 18 points—since 2008. That’s good news for Obama.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that these shifts in the eligible voter pool will be fully realized among actual voters in November. But the potential is clearly there. And the Obama campaign, with its emphasis on voter mobilization and a strong ground game,  is well-positioned to take advantage of that.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and editor of America’s New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West. William Frey is a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

*Editor's note: This post was updated at 11:45