PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - President Obama, Congressman David Cicilline and other Democrats were propelled to victory last November by a surge in voting by Hispanic and black Rhode Islanders as well as a sharp drop in participation among white citizens, a WPRI.com analysis of new Census data shows.
The Census data reveals 32,000 Hispanic Rhode Islanders voted in last fall's presidential election, up from 20,000 in 2008 and just 13,000 in 2004. It also shows 30,000 black Rhode Islanders went to the polls on Nov. 6, up from 27,000 in 2008 and 17,000 in 2004. Both groups' vote totals more than doubled in eight years.
Yet even as Hispanic and black turnout soared to new highs, voter participation among white non-Hispanic Rhode Islanders dropped precipitously. The report shows only 400,000 whites voted in Rhode Island in 2012 - the fewest since tracking began in 1996, down from 451,000 in 2008 and 431,000 in 2004.
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The new data offers more evidence of how shifting demographics are changing Rhode Island politics. Non-Hispanic whites' share of the state's presidential-year electorate dropped from 97% in 1996 to 85% in 2012, while Hispanics' share jumped from less than 2% to nearly 7%.
National exit polls showed President Obama won just 39% of the white vote but 80% of the non-white vote last year, a sharp racial divide that's caused concern among Republicans as the minority population keeps growing. No exit poll was conducted in Rhode Island last November.
Democrats had a banner year in Rhode Island in 2012, dashing local Republicans' hopes that the outcome of the 2008 election was a one-time fluke attributable to Obama's early popularity.
Obama defeated Mitt Romney 63% to 35% in Rhode Island, matching his 2008 margin over John McCain almost precisely. Cicilline defeated Republican Brendan Doherty by 12 percentage points despite a weak approval rating and dismal headlines. Democrats also won 101 out of 113 races for the General Assembly.
Eric Hyers, who managed Cicilline's campaigns in 2010 and 2012, said he wasn't surprised that the Rhode Island electorate was more racially varied last year than in previous elections. "It makes sense," he told WPRI.com. "I think it mirrors the national trend we saw in November."
"We knew to expect a very diverse and different electorate," Hyers said. "I know some people were caught off-guard by that, but I think we saw it coming."
Voter turnout was down overall in Rhode Island last fall compared with the 2008 presidential election. A record 507,000 votes were cast that year, which was 38,000 more than in 2012, according to the Census report.
The Census report shows 62.5% of eligible Rhode Islanders went to the polls last November, the lowest percentage since at least 1996 and down from 67.4% in 2008. Participation among white non-Hispanics fell from 69% to 63%, but rose from approximately 48% to 56% among Hispanics.
The new report suggests Rhode Island politicians hoping to win statewide in 2014, when overall turnout likely will be significantly lower, could make significant gains by winning votes among the state's growing Hispanic electorate. Just 20% of eligible Hispanics voted in Rhode Island's 2010 gubernatorial election, whereas 50% of eligible white non-Hispanics did.
Turnout in Rhode Island fell sharply last year among voters of all ages, but particularly among younger residents.
The Census report shows 48% of eligible Rhode Islanders ages 18 to 44 voted in November, down from 55% in 2008. Among voters ages 45 to 64 the participation rate fell from 70% in 2008 to 64% in 2012, and among voters ages 65 and older it fell from 72% to 67%.
Rhode Island women once again turned out at a higher rate than the state's male residents, although in both groups fewer eligible voters participated compared with 2008. Turnout among women fell from 66% in 2008 to 59% in 2012, and the rate among men fell from 60% to 55%.
The Census report also suggests the trends seen in 2012 could continue.
Rhode Island's voting-age Hispanic population grew from 71,000 to 95,000 over the last four years, while the state's voting-age white non-Hispanic population fell from 669,000 to 646,000 - almost exactly the same number. However, voter registration rates are far lower among Hispanics, fewer of whom are eligible to vote compared with the white population.
The Census report is based on a large nationwide survey conducted after last November's election, and its findings carry a larger margin of error for smaller subgroups of voters.
The Census survey's estimate of 2012 voter turnout in Rhode Island - 469,000 - is higher than the official count of 450,030 published by the secretary of state's office. A Pew Research Center analysis suggested that divergence may be attributable to "social desirability bias," which means "some survey respondents may say they voted when in fact they did not."
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