Ever since Thomas Franks's What's the Matter with Kansas?, conventional wisdom has held that Americans are easily persuaded by social issues to vote against their economic self-interest. Hardly so, according to this provocative piece in The New York Times. The article (and its red state/blue state maps, chiefly the set drawn up according to income categories) shows that less well-off Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and have for the last 20 years. If anybody's been voting against their self-interest, it's been high-income Democrats.
The authors are Columbia professor Andrew Gelman and Avi Feller, a graduate student in statistics at Harvard. Here are two key paragraphs of their piece:
"In other words, contrary to what you have heard, there’s only a strong red America-blue America split toward the top of the income distribution. Toward the bottom, the electoral map is a sea of blue.
"Why does this happen? Our research on opinion poll data from earlier elections finds that lower-income Americans tend to vote based on economic issues, while richer voters consider social issues as well as economics in their voting decisions. This is sometimes called post-materialism: the idea that, as individuals or groups become more comfortable, they can afford to think beyond their immediate needs."
That "sea of blue" is most pronounced in the electoral maps drawn up according to four income categories: under $30K, $30-50K, $50-100K and $100-200K. Democrats handily win the under $50K categories, the GOP takes the higher-income groups--but there's plenty of blue among the higher incomes, and very little red in the lower incomes.
In other words, as Gelman and Geller put it:
"The so-called culture war between red and blue America is concentrated in the upper half of the income distribution, and voting patterns reflect this."The article shows that electoral results strikingly similar to those based on income also result when the maps are drawn up based on age (18-29, 30-39, 40-64, and 65+); or based on sex; or based on nonwhites and whites.
Can cultural issues trump economic self-interest at the ballot box? Not according to this piece. Is the blue state-red state divide really just a matter of dollars and cents? Could be.