The 2012 election will of course be noted by history for its outcome: The United States re-elected its first black president, a milestone many commentators argued that was even more momentous than Barack Obama's first election. Now with a few months' reflection – and some fresh data out today from the Census Bureau – it turns out that the 2012 electorate was itself historic, marking a watershed for both black voters and America's increasingly diverse voting public.
For the first time, blacks voted at a higher rate than whites in a presidential election. More than two-thirds of eligible blacks cast a ballot (66.2 percent), more than two percentage points higher than turnout by non-Hispanic whites (64.1 percent). Since 1996, when the Census Bureau first started to collect consistent citizenship data, the black turnout rate has increased by 13 percentage points.
Between the 2008 and 2012 elections, the number of non-Hispanic white voters actually decreased by about 2 million, marking, according to the Census Bureau, the only example since 1996 of a decrease in net voting by any race group from one presidential election to the next. The total number of Americans who reported voting has risen every election since 1996 (as the population has also increased). But this last data point suggests that most of the growth in the latest election cycle came from minorities.
All of this means that politicos will have to contend not just with America's changing demographics, but also with evolving voting patterns among individual demographic groups. Minorities comprise an ever larger share of the U.S. population. But if they also continue voting at higher rates election over election, that math will compound their growing political power.
Blacks are now voting at an even higher percentage that demographers might expect based on their share of the total population eligible to vote. In 2012, blacks were 12.5 percent of the eligible electorate. But they accounted for 13.4 percent of the vote (Hispanics, on the other hand, have long been and remain underrepresented in vote totals based on their share of eligible voters).
In aggregate, the white share of total votes cast dropped by about 9 percentage points between 1996 and 2012, a trend likely to continue. 2012 may well turn out to be an anomalous year for black voters heading to the polls to re-elect a black president. But the broader demographic story behind these trends has little to do with Barack Obama: America is growing more diverse, and the American electorate will inevitably follow.
Top image of Barack Obama at a Nov. 4, 2012 rally in Aurora, Colo.: Jason Reed/Reuters