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Who Is The White Vote?


With the end of campaign season, we're going to hear a lot of conversation about the Latino vote or the Black vote. What you won't hear a lot about is the white vote. So I asked Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch podcast team to come on the program and talk about why.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: So the white vote is always there. But, you know, we in the media have a million euphemisms for the white vote. We have a lot of ways to say white without saying white. We say evangelical, soccer moms, suburban women, NASCAR dads, etc. Never mind that, you know, plenty of people of color overindex on things like church attendance or that, you know, the suburbs all over the country are becoming browner all the time. White is kind of implied in U.S. politics, and because it's left implied, there tends to be this hyperfocus after elections on the way that nonwhite voters behave.

So right now we're hearing a lot about Biden's underperformance among Latino voters in Florida, for example, but far less about the fact that Trump won 60% of white voters in Florida. And white voters make up nearly two-thirds of the electorate in Florida this year, at least according to The New York Times. So Trump's viability relies almost entirely on his consistently strong white support. But because we don't talk about white people that way, we tend to focus on these sort of marginal shifts with people of color.

CORNISH: So what is the story that the media tends to tell? I mean, is it really looking at the white vote as somehow a cohesive voting bloc?

DEMBY: Well, I mean, white voters on the top line are not a bloc in the way that Black voters are. Black voters regularly vote for Democrats somewhere, like, in the mid-'80s into the mid-'90s in terms of percentages in presidential elections. And it's true that a solid majority of white voters break one way. The majority of white voters have voted for Republicans in presidential elections going back to the 1960s. Lyndon Johnson was actually the last Democrat to win the white vote. But it's when you get under the hood that you start to see what looks more like bloc voting.

So white evangelicals, for example, they overwhelmingly support Trump in numbers that look like bloc voting. Another big part of the Republican base is noncollege-educated whites. So Trump won almost two-thirds of white voters without college degrees in 2016. And it appears - it's early, but it appears he won them again pretty handily this time. Trump also narrowly won most white voters with college degrees that time.

But this year, support seems to be about even. White men broke for Trump pretty comfortably in 2016. And Trump famously - or infamously, depending on what your Twitter feed looks like, Audie - won white women in 2016, too. And, again, there's some indication that Trump may have done even better with white women this time around. And that's a shift that's worth keeping an eye on as the election data becomes clearer. But when it comes to swaths of white voters, we're really talking about how big the majorities of support for Republicans go in presidential elections, not whether they'll have the majority.

CORNISH: Well, then let's come back to the Latino vote for a moment - right? - as it's being talked about in Florida and in Arizona. Put that in the context of what you're telling us about the media and how we talk about white voters.

DEMBY: Latino is a term that's worth sort of us taking apart and exploring in greater detail. But it is a panethnic term that doesn't work in quite the same way that white does for electoral purposes. The Latinos in Maricopa County, who might end up turning Arizona Democratic, have different, you know, familial countries of origin than the Latinos in Miami-Dade County, in Florida, who shifted towards Trump in this election. The Cubans and Venezuelans in Florida are outliers among Latino voters, who trend strongly Democratic overall across the country.

Meanwhile, you know, white non-Republicans in the electorate, they are the outliers, which is why, you know, Democrats rely so much on strong turnout from voters of color to be viable in presidential elections. But it's important that, you know, we think about the ways that there are many, many white Latinos. And because whiteness so thoroughly informs voting behavior, we should probably be asking better questions about Latino voters, like whether they identify as white or not. That might be more illuminating than simply whether someone refers to themselves as Latino in some ways.

CORNISH: The backdrop to all of this, Gene, is the white vote is shrinking every year - right? - in terms of its portion of the electorate. What does that mean going forward?

DEMBY: So starting in the very next election, it looks like these younger, browner cohorts - the Gen Zers and the millennials - are going to outpace boomers in terms of voters in the electorate. These are demographics that are much more hostile to the GOP. This is going to be a really big challenge for the GOP in terms of electoral viability in some ways. And people have been saying this for a long time. But the sort of demographic realities become really, really concrete in the next two cycles.

CORNISH: That's Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch podcast.

Thanks for talking with us.

DEMBY: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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