Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Tue Nov 4th 2008 at 8:57am UTC

Class, Politics, and Geography

Rich State, Poor State author, Andrew Gelman shows that the poor are not dupes and that America’s political polarization has more to do with economic geography then individual income.

Ever since Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” came out a few years ago, Kansas has been a symbol of the alleged new trend of working-class Republicanism. Pundits on the left say that lower-income Americans are ignoring their economic interests; on the right, there has been talk of the Democrats as the elites and the Republicans as the party of the people.

Actually, though, Kansas has consistently voted Republican for more than 70 years, and a look at exit poll data shows that the richer you are in the state, the more likely you are to vote Republican. In 2004, George Bush received half the vote of low-income Kansans, but more than 80 percent of the vote of those in the state whose incomes were higher than $100,000.

And Kansas is far from unique. Over the past decades, rich voters have remained consistently more Republican than voters on the lower end of the income scale. At the national level, if poor people were a state, they would be “bluer” even than Massachusetts; if rich people were a state, they would be about as “red” as Alabama, Kansas, the Dakotas or Texas. Further data comes from the political contributions of top executives and the richest Americans, who favored Bush over John Kerry 3-to-1 in 2004.

The myth of rich Democrats and poor Republicans is sustained in part by the electoral map, which shows – for real – that Democrats are now winning in the rich states such as Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. But winning rich states is not the same as winning rich voters.

We’ve been hearing for a while about the cultural divide between Wal-Mart Republicans and Starbucks Democrats. A more accurate description of voters distinguishes more subtly between rich and poor. Among upper-middle-class and rich voters, rich states go Democratic while poor states go Republican. But among lower-income voters, rich and poor states do not vote differently. The differences between “red states” and “blue states” are real, but these differences occur among rich voters, not poor voters.

What is going on? Why is it the rich, not the poor, who seem to be voting based on cultural factors? One explanation is post-materialism: As you become more prosperous, you can afford to be concerned about noneconomic issues. This holds for individuals and also for states: Richer voters in rich states such as Connecticut are much less likely to vote Republican than you would expect based on their income alone.

One Response to “Class, Politics, and Geography”

  1. Frank the Tank Says:

    This is a fascinating argument that turns around the common thinking that poor people have been voting on “values” against their economic interests – in fact, it appears to be the opposite where the affluent can “afford” to vote on their own “values”. Of course, a lot of the data Gelman has pointed out is based on the 2004 election, where high-income business people still voted for and gave disproportionate campaign contributions to Republicans over Democrats. In contrast, for all of the talk about Obama’s small online donations, he has also dominated in getting contributions from Wall Street and other moneyed constituencies like no other Democrat in history. It will be interesting if Gelman’s argument based on 2004 will still hold true for today’s election.