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Three Quick Lessons in a Mountain of Election Data

Thu, 11/08/2012 - 02:28 By Dante Chinni, Jefferson Insitute

Elections produce many things, from balloon drops to new elected officials, but they also produce mountains of data.

Analysts will spend weeks going through the 2012 results and exit polls pulling out bits and strands of numbers that explain what this state or that county did. Those facts and indicators will be what future campaigns are made of. But a quick rundown of the 2012 numbers reveals a few big trends of particularly significant note. They are important not only because of what they say about what happened on Tuesday, but also about what they say about the elections to come.

And they exist at some important hinge points in American society: race and ethnicity, income and education and the urban/rural divide.

Race and Ethnicity

Through the most basic prism, political analysts had a very good sense of how the election was going to break last night simply by looking at who voted.

Before the big states were decided the exit polls showed the national electorate was about 72 percent white, 13 percent African-American and 10 percent Hispanic. That was no good for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. He needed that figure to be closer to 74 percent. (His own staff reportedly said they would have felt comfortable at 75 percent.)

Why? Mr. Romney had a huge lead among white voters (20 percentage points), but he had bigger deficits among the other groups (an 80 point difference on the black vote and a 44 point gap with Hispanics)..

Of all the numbers Tuesday night, that breakdown is probably of the most long-term concern to the GOP. The percentage of the electorate made up of white voters continues to decline -- it was 81 percent back in 2000. The black percentage of the electorate held steady at 13 percent in 2012 and the number of Hispanics has grown steadily since 2000, from 7 percent to 10 percent.

As Republican consultant Dick Morris, who had predicted a win for Mr. Romney, said after the election: "This isn't your father's America."

The GOP's problems with African-Americans span decades and the party's current policies and rhetoric toward immigrants is hurting it with Hispanics and with Asians, which are also a growing segment of the electorate -- 3 percent on Tuesday night.

Income and Education Divide

Statistics can be tricky things. The Tuesday exit polls say President Obama won people making less than $100,000 and Mr. Romney won college graduates. But dig into those numbers a bit more and they look different.

For instance, look at the 10 wealthiest counties in America -- eight of them voted for Mr. Obama. And while Mr. Romney won college graduates (51 percent to 47 percent), Mr. Obama actually won those who had done post-graduate work (55 percent to 42 percent).

It will take some time to cross-analyze all those numbers, but they suggest a few possibilities.

They may mean Republicans are winning upper-middle class and wealthy voters, but could have longer-term problems with the very wealthy, who tend to have more advanced degrees. What seems clear in these numbers are some of the tensions within the Obama coalition. He won post-graduates, but he also captured 64 percent of the vote from those who did not graduate high school.

Those voters are bound to want different things out of government and seem set to be on different sides of the growing economic divide. It could become a tough balance for the Democrats to hold in the next few elections.

What Are the Suburbs?

The exit polls say Mr. Obama won urban locations, while Mr. Romney won rural locations and eked out a majority in the suburbs -- 50.2 percent. But that distribution of American voters -- urban, suburban, rural -- is pretty basic. There is a lot of room in there to dig further, particularly in the difference between the older, closer-in suburbs and outer-ring exurbs.

Patchwork Nation, the journalism project I lead that breaks the nation's 3,100 counties into 12 demographic/geographic types, sees the breakdown a bit differently. We see sharp distinctions in the wealthier closer-in counties we call the Monied Burbs and the more exurban counties we call the Boom Towns. See the map here.

The Burbs, which are wealthier and more socially moderate, seem to be moving more into the Democrats' tent. Mr. Obama won them by about 10 percentage points in 2008. And in this election, even after a long recession and with a lot of voters saying the county is on the "wrong track," he still won them by 6 points.

That's noteworthy because almost a quarter of all the votes yesterday came from the Monied Burbs, as you can see on this map of results from WNYC radio in New York. If that trend continues in future elections, it is problematic for the GOP.

The Republicans' hopes may lie in the Boom Towns, which tend to be more socially conservative. Mr. Romney won them by 9 points on Tuesday -- about 21 percent of the 2012 presidential votes came from those counties.

That means along with race and ethnicity, income and education, geography and the divides within regions and metro areas could play a very big role in American politics in the decade ahead.

If this suburban/exurban divide continues to show itself, some of the biggest questions for political consultants, analysts and campaigns may be: Where is the country's growth predominantly, in the suburbs or exurbs? What does that growth look like? And what are each of the two parties doing to capture votes coming out of those counties?

This post first appeared on the PBS NewsHour's Rundown Blog.

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