WASHINGTON — For all the attention generated by Barack Obama's candidacy, the share of eligible voters who actually cast ballots in November declined for the first time in a dozen years. The reason: Older whites with little interest in backing either Barack Obama or John McCain stayed home.
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Census figures released Monday show about 63.6 percent of all U.S. citizens ages 18 and older, or 131.1 million people, voted last November. Although that represented an increase of 5 million voters — virtually all of them minorities — the turnout relative to the population of eligible voters was a decrease from 63.8 percent in 2004.
Ohio and Pennsylvania were among those showing declines in white voters, helping Obama carry those battleground states.
"While the significance of minority votes for Obama is clearly key, it cannot be overlooked that reduced white support for a Republican candidate allowed minorities to tip the balance in many slow-growing 'purple' states," said William H. Frey, a demographer for Brookings Institution, referring to key battleground states that don't notably tilt Democrat or Republican.
"The question I would ask is if a continuing stagnating economy could change that," he said.
Most diverse electorate ever
According to census data, 66 percent of whites voted last November, down 1 percentage point from 2004. Blacks increased their turnout by 5 percentage points to 65 percent, nearly matching whites. Hispanics improved turnout by 3 percentage points, and Asians by 3.5 percentage points, each reaching a turnout of nearly 50 percent. In all, minorities made up nearly 1 in 4 voters in 2008, the most diverse electorate ever.
By age, voters 18-to-24 were the only group to show a statistically significant increase in turnout, with 49 percent casting ballots, compared with 47 percent in 2004.
Blacks had the highest turnout rate among this age group — 55 percent, or an 8 percentage point jump from 2004. In contrast, turnout for whites 18-24 was basically flat at 49 percent. Asians and Hispanics in that age group increased to 41 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
Among whites 45 and older, turnout fell 1.5 percentage point to just under 72 percent.
Asked to identify their reasons for not voting, 46 percent of all whites said they didn't like the candidates, weren't interested or had better things to do, up from 41 percent in 2004. Hispanics had similar numbers for both years.
Not surprisingly, blacks showed a sharp increase in interest.
Among the blacks who failed to vote last fall most cited problems such as illness, being out of town or transportation issues. Just 16 percent of nonvoting blacks cited disinterest, down from 37 percent in 2004.
Among other findings:
- The decline in percentage turnout was the first in a presidential election since 1996. At that time, voter participation fell to 58.4 percent — the lowest in decades — as Democrat Bill Clinton won an easy re-election over Republican Bob Dole amid a strong economy.
- The voting rate in 2008 was highest in the Midwest (66 percent). The other regions were about 63 percent each.
- Minnesota and the District of Columbia had the highest turnout, each with 75 percent. Utah and Hawaii — Obama's birth state — were among the lowest, each with 52 percent.
Rift between generations
The figures are the latest to highlight a generational rift between younger, increasingly minority voters and an older white population.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found almost 8 in 10 people believe there is a major difference in the point of view of younger and older people today, mostly over social values. It was the largest generation gap since divisions 40 years ago over Vietnam, civil rights and women's liberation.
Last November, voters under 30 cast ballots for Obama by a 2-to-1 ratio. Still, because of their smaller numbers — in population and turnout — young voters weren't critical to the overall outcome and only made a difference in North Carolina and Indiana, according to Scott Keeter, Pew's director of survey research.
The census figures are based on the Current Population Survey, which asked respondents after Election Day about their turnout. The figures for "white" refer to the whites who are not of Hispanic ethnicity.
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