Political dichotomies in election analysis
Among the detailed findings of national exit polls from biennial elections are results that contrast a particular demographic group with everyone else. Sometimes these contrasts are startling and lead to some groups claiming responsibility for one side's victory.
Who powered President Obama's reelection in 2012? The GLBT community claims they were decisive, and the exit polls provide supporting evidence. The 5% of the electorate who self-identified as GLBT voted for Obama, 76% to 22%. Everyone else, the other 95%, split dead even, 49-49. Gays provided Obama's entire margin of victory.
But unmarried individuals of all sexual orientations could make a similar claim. Singles, comprising 40% of the 2012 electorate, voted for Obama by 62-35, offsetting married voters, some 60% of the electorate, who backed Republican Mitt Romney, 56-42.
The rich-poor dichotomy produced similar results. While voters from households earning $50,000 or more, representing a 59% majority of the electorate, backed Romney, 53-45, voters from households earning less than $50.000 carried the day for Obama, 60-38.
The largest and most cited dichotomy is the gender gap. For about a generation, women have tended to vote more Democratic and men more Republican. Since more women usually vote than men, Democratic victories are often credited to the majority delivered by women. In 2012, women backed Obama, 55-44, overcoming men's 52-45 majority for Romney.
On the other hand, white evangelical Christians take credit for turning the tide in the 2014 midterms. Comprising 26% of the electorate, they voted for Republican congressional candidates by 78-20. Everybody else voted for Democratic candidates by 55-43.
But these statistics, viewed in that precise vacuum, can be deceiving. Most of these demographic groups support the same party's candidates election after election for a generation or more. What is usually more significant is changes in margin and relative turnout within the groups from one election to another.
Women, for example, provided a majority of their votes to Democratic congressional candidates in 2014, but they weren't the deciding factor they had been in 2012. While the mainstream press and media usually cite the gender gap as a Republican problem, it was the male vote that cost Democrats control of the U.S. Senate in 2014. Men increased their Republican majority to 57-41 in 2014, while women's Democratic support slipped to 51-47. And even though the relative proportions of voting age men and women remained constant between the two elections, men increased their share of the electorate by 2 percentage points in 2014, with a corresponding shrinkage in women's participation.
After “delivering” the 2012 election to Obama, what did gays do in 2014? They voted for Democrats, 75-24, in 2014, nearly identical to 2012. But it was “straight” voters who made the difference in 2014. Comprising 96% of the 2014 electorate, they gave Republican congressional candidates an 8-point margin (53-45) after having broken even in 2012.
The unmarried individuals of all sexual orientations who share credit for Obama's 2012 win also share the blame for the Democrat debacle in the 2014 midterms. Singles' 27-point 2012 margin for Obama shrank to just 12 points for congressional Democrats in 2014, one of the largest demographic shifts of the midterms. This was exacerbated by woeful turnout, dropping from 40% of the electorate to just 37%.
Households with less than $50,000 in income, who also shared credit for Obama's 2012 win, also shared blame in 2014. The 11-point margin they gave Democrats in 2014 was only half the 22-point spread they had produced for Obama, and their proportion of the electorate dove 5 points in 2014, from 41% to just 36%.
And where were the evangelicals, the Republican heroes of 2014, two years before? They were there all along, giving Romney a nearly identical 78-21 win over Obama while comprising the same 26% of the electorate. But they weren't the difference-maker in 2012. Obama won because he won all the other voters, comprising a 74% majority of the electorate, by 23 points, 60-37. In fact, a case can be made that it was those other voters, not the reliable and consistent evangelicals, who powered the Republican 2014 win, even though Democrats carried them. That's because the Democratic advantage with these non-evangelical voters cratered, from a 23-point spread in 2012 to just 12 points in 2014.
Is your head spinning yet?